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Salmon Stay, Dams Go;
Dams Stay, Salmon Go

Commentary by Dick Dorworth
Idaho Mountain Express, August 17, 2005

A few months ago I had the good fortune to spend a week climbing in the Owens River Gorge near Bishop, Calif. The Owens River no longer exists. Instead, an enormous pipe carries the river's water that once made the Owens River Valley a fertile cornucopia more than 200 miles from where it disappears into the concrete jungles of Los Angeles. It is an ugly monument to a sad, obnoxious and dangerous reality of American politics and business: the destruction of the natural world on the altar of greed and its handmaidens, consumerism and overpopulation.

I've written elsewhere of this: "Unless one is a Creationist (in which case one should read no further), the Gorge is a relative newcomer to the geology of earth. In human time, of course, the Owens River Gorge is ancient, though its present incarnation as a place for humans to recreate was entirely man made less than a 100 years ago.

"The present Owens River Gorge was formed from man's deceit and greed and empire building and the delusion of unlimited growth, which Ed Abbey once pointed out is the ethic of the cancer cell. The Gorge we know today is a by-product of the (so far) unlimited growth of Los Angeles and of the deceptions of a handful of developers, boosters, politicians, city and federal employees, engineers and political appointees working on behalf of that growth. Among them were William Mulholland, Gifford Pinchot, J.B. Lippencott, Fred Eaton and the president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. It is a too-well-known-to-repeat-here, oft-told and, sadly, old story, as old as man, probably best told in the film 'Chinatown' and in the book 'Cadillac Desert.' A fertile Owens Valley and the roaring Owens River were dried up to water the concrete gridlock of road rage, smog, pollution and overpopulation that characterizes Southern California. In the interests of efficiency and evaporation control, the vital Owens River was diverted into a huge steel pipe ... In due, not even geologic, time this, too, will pass."

By changing a few names of developers, boosters and politicians, by substituting "fetid barge canal" or "slack water reservoir" for "huge/enormous steel pipe," inserting a few (four) dams and by recognizing the ethic of growth is the same in both places, this could be an apt description of Idaho's Snake River. Like all too many others in America and elsewhere, the Owens and the Snake were once vital rivers, key elements of the earth's natural environment, and biological equivalents of arteries in the human body. Now they are rivers in name only.

The Owens Steel Pipe Water Conveyor has a catchy sound to it, as does the Dammed Snake Turbine Turner Barge Transporter. Both are more accurate descriptions of the functions, the reality, of the current Owens and the Snake than is the term "river."

One of the biological functions of the Snake River was to serve as a pathway and habitat for the lifecycle of chinook, sockeye and coho salmon and steelhead, the anadromous rainbow trout. Until a relatively few years ago, millions of fish migrated up to a thousand miles from the Pacific Ocean to the streams and lakes of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California to spawn the next generation before dying. Today, the coho is extinct in Idaho. A few sockeye manage to get past the four dams on the Snake and keep the life cycle of their species going. The Chinook and steelhead are close to extinction.

Species extinction is just one of a multitude of problems associated with man's destructive fantasy that unlimited growth and the spoliation of the habitat of any species that gets in the way can be sustained. The coming extinction of salmon is probably not as crucial to the earth's environment as global warming, but even this is not sure. No one knows all the solutions to (or long term consequences of) these problems. Perhaps there are none, but if there are any solutions they will start with a more accurate naming of things, a more clear explanation of the way those things are, a higher and broader account of the value of life than what can be found in the bottom line of a narrow band of the economy.

One could start with something as simple as not calling the Dammed Snake Turbine Turner Barge Transporter a river.

Despite the ravings (about saving salmon as well as the dams of the Snake) of people like Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, whose natural habitat and cycle of political life exists deep within the fathomless pockets of the largest contributors to his campaigns and whose words and political career are as smooth and inspiring as old oil floating on slack water, science, common sense and the miniscule number of salmon to reach Redfish Lake each year concur that the dams upon the Snake and the fish that need a river in order to exist are not compatible.

Step one to a solution is to call it like it is: The Dammed Snake Turbine Turner Barge Transporter is not a river.

Step two is also to call it like it is: dams stay, salmon goes; salmon stay, dams go. Re-name it Extinct Fish Lake or let the red fish make it home to Redfish Lake.

Step three: protect nature or, eventually, man goes.

Take your pick. Our great-great grandchildren will know and experience the difference.

Dick Dorworth
Salmon Stay, Dams Go; Dams Stay, Salmon Go
Idaho Mountain Express - August 17, 2005

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