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Restoring Faith and Fish Runs

by Paul Lindholdt
Spokesman-Review, May 5, 2012

During my lifetime, faith has become a habit. Not the faith of religion, faith in technology. I have faith my car will start when I go to work. And if my car breaks, I have faith that mechanics can repair it so I can drive it back to work to earn the money to pay for those repairs.

I learned my faith as a child. I learned, along with the rest of post-World War II America, to believe in engineers - whether with NASA, Chevrolet or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, when that federal agency proposed to build Wanapum Dam on the Columbia River near Mattawa.

As a Washington native, I traveled to Vantage with my parents to fish, camp and hunt. There, before the Wanapum Dam flooded it, we found sage grouse, black widow spiders and Native American petroglyphs. When water covered that magical landscape, my sadness diminished through my belief in the technical leaders, economists and politicians who said the dam was necessary to generate electricity and to control floods.

When the fish runs began to decline, doubt briefly touched my faith. Maybe building the dams was wrong? But I drowned my doubt. The engineers had a good plan. They would retrofit Columbia River dams with fish ladders to aid the upstream struggle of the fish.

Later, I learned that those hundreds of miles of slack-water reservoirs created by the dams take a lethal toll on the smolts heading downstream to the sea. The fish lose velocity, lose time, grow old before they reach the Pacific, get eaten by sea lions or the pike minnows that thrive in slack water, and sometimes they die from nitrogen saturation when they plunge over the spillways of the dams.

But the engineers and politicians had an answer to that problem, too. Pack the fish in barges and take them around the dams and slack water, they decreed. And so it came to be. Never mind the absurdity of the image - hundreds of tons of steel toting tiny minnows past the millions of tons of concrete built up in their way.

I tried to push aside the illogic of a second technology being invented to remediate a first technology, a process that required a new verb to supplant the first verb, "remedy."

When the technocrats kicked off the pikeminnow bounty program, I thought it was good. I caught a few pikeminnows myself. Some folks tried to make a living by bounty fishing. Maybe, just maybe, a new sport fishery would arise to offset the loss of the hundreds of thousands of salmon and steelhead I remember running in Western Washington in the Green, Cedar, Skagit and Skykomish rivers, spawning in gravel beds and flopping on stream banks, some traveling 900 miles up twisting rivers into Idaho.

When we dredged the silt held back by dams and made islands where terns nested and ate the smolts, I believed it was right to be intervening in nature that way. My reason told me to disbelieve, but faith stood in my way.

Now I am growing older, more numb. I've heard the promises come and I've watched the fish runs go. It's getting harder to believe. Desperately, the Corps of Engineers proposed to drape with plastic the silt islands they'd built, or plant bushes to discourage the terns, or build new and better islands out of harm's way, outside the ancient salmon path.

These are solutions I might once have praised. But my faith in political leaders in Spokane, Walla Walla, Olympia and Washington, D.C., has diminished along with the salmon runs.

Today, when partisan interests predict Eastern Washington will revert to sagebrush and desert if we retire the dams, when they argue that electricity rates will skyrocket and that we can't afford to save the salmon, I don't believe.

And even though my trust in the experts has been shattered, I can't quite break the habit. I still cling to hope that our political leaders can make wise decisions, like retired federal Judge James Redden who spoke out recently when interviewed by Idaho Public Television.

"I think we need to take those dams down," he said. He has some authority to say so. For 10 years he studied the issue and presided over national deliberations on salmon recovery. With Judge Redden, I believe engineers need to bypass the same dams they built. Give the river back its current and set wild salmon free again.

Paul Lindholdt is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University.
Restoring Faith and Fish Runs
Spokesman-Review, May 5, 2012

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