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Is there a limit to the fixes for the Columbia?

Is there a limit to the fixes for the Columbia?

Columbia Forum speaker Irene Martin questions validity of restoration science

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Posted: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 12:47 pm

If Lewis and Clark were here today, would they recognize the Columbia River estuary that they explored so many generations ago?

Have we changed the river so much - altering its flow with dams, manipulating its fish stocks with hatcheries and even physically changing the landscape - that they wouldn't recognize this place?

The river will never again be as it was, answered local historian Irene Martin at Tuesday night's Columbia Forum.

The author and former commercial fisher questioned the validity of today's approach to healing and improving the Columbia River, and the seemingly endless cadre of scientists who have made an industry out of the river's future.

Now, she sees the salmon recovery efforts transforming scientists into entrepreneurs, which has an influence on their work. A new scientific "market" can be added to the long-standing commercial and sport fishing market that once brought money into the economy, she explained. That industry is reminiscent of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex," Martin said.

"The place where we now are in the history of science on the Columbia is less focused than it once was on observation, documentation and publication and more on technological fixes for the damage or changes wrought by development," she said.

Is there a limit to the "fixes" we apply to the river? she asked.

Too many demands

Today's science doesn't do justice to the memory of the river and its fish, Martin said. That memory - still lingering in the minds of fishermen and their descendants, documented in photos and even in song - also needs to be used as a guide as we look to the future, she said.

"Our society has placed significant demands on the river, which have contributed to the metering out of the various attributes of the river to different users, often without thought about the cumulative effects such actions might have," Martin said.

She started, however, by treating the audience to a history of the river and its many inhabitants - in words, pictures and even a song Martin sang.

Martin, author of fives books about the area's history and fisheries, lives in Skamokawa, Wash. She traced the exploration of the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest, starting with the European quest for a Northwest Passage.

When Lewis and Clark arrived here, they recorded their observations, and these records of the Columbia River estuary remain. Martin used their work as a springboard for her own questions, asking the audience to consider the lens through which we see what is left to document their journey.

"How do the cultural norms of our own times influence what we see and what we overlook, what is meaningful and what is trivial? What new scientific disciplines and understandings do we bring to this discussion?" she wondered.

How it all began

Many early explorers came to the area searching for the Northwest Passage, a mythical waterway that would cut across the continent. Late in the 19th century, people began to think differently about how to use and exploit the Columbia River, and that approach continues today, Martin said.

"We changed from ‘taking' a Northwest Passage or ‘searching' for a Northwest Passage to ‘making' a Northwest Passage," she explained. Soon, dams were built, wetlands were diked and drained for farm land, and irrigation made arid land green. Shipping channels were dredged and jetties were built to encourage commerce.

As a result, the volume of water coming out of the Columbia River in the spring is 60 percent of what it was 100 years ago, she said.

"During freshet times, the plume used to go all the way down to San Francisco and as far north as the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The river's plume was pushed in different directions, depending upon the wind, and deposited sand as far north at Point Grenville in Washington and Tillamook Head in Oregon," Martin explained. The freshet is the time of heaviest water volume in the spring.

Even though many of the changes were made with good intentions, some of the outcomes couldn't have been anticipated, she said. The biggest loss may be the salmon runs, Martin said.

The hogs are gone

A prime example is the summer chinook salmon, then called "June hogs," that used to pass by Astoria.

"They were the fish the canning industry here in the estuary was known for," Martin said. "Their size, sometimes weighing over 80 pounds, their beauty and the quality of their flesh made them a charismatic species if ever there was one."

But when the Grand Coulee Dam was built without fish ladders in 1940, they disappeared because they couldn't complete the 1,200-mile journey to their spawning grounds, she said.

Look for evidence of the June hogs today and little remains, Martin said. Museums on the Columbia don't devote much time on them, instead favoring mythical creatures like the Sasquatch and "ogo pogo," the river's supposed version of the Loch Ness monster.

"They are now ghost fish, remembered mainly by Columbia River gillnetters and tribal fishers along the river," she said.

Even scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service cannot be convinced they existed, Martin said.

The river is a place where ideas, science and history collide, she continued.

Ed Johnson of Knappa asked Martin if there wasn't a way to help fish navigate the Grand Coulee Dam.

"I'm told there's no way of engineering a fish ladder ... It's very very difficult to get around," she answered.

Is Martin optimistic or pessimistic about the river's future? Columbia River Bar Pilot Thron Riggs asked.

"Well, I'm here, so I guess the glass is half full," she said. "I've met a lot of people who are trying to do the right thing."


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