Monday, August 5, 2013

Let the Wild Rivers Breathe

January 2011

Rattlesnake Creek, Missoula, Montana
I was hiking along Rattlesnake Creek, on the outskirts of my home in Missoula, on a cold, January afternoon when I heard a thunderous roar up ahead, like a freight train might sound if it derailed and crashed through the trees.  Soon I saw wall of ice and water coming my way and I climbed a little higher up the bank, just in case, where I could safely watch it all tumble and careen by.  The creek rose at least four feet and a few small trees rushed past (another witness later said he saw a dead beaver float by.)  The normally crystalline water turned coffee-colored and the air had a similar scent as low tide along the sea from the churning gravel and scraping of the river bottom.  The river receded nearly as quickly as it rose, leaving piles of ice along the bank that looked like giant white dominos pushed on their sides.

It was a spectacular show of force, as only nature can put on, and a remarkable site to see. Or so it seemed remarkable to me. For the Creek, it was just another deep breath of change as rivers tend to do once in awhile when left to run free and wild.  In an article for the July 1994 issue of Audubon, called “The River Always Wins,” Writer Ted Williams tells about a time one of the “earth’s great rivers” broke over its banks and raged through its watershed. “The river was the Yukon,” he wrote. “And if you hadn’t heard that it overflowed, it’s because no one but the river wrote about it. Since people do not dare to live in it, which is to say on the regularly inundated floodplain, the media ignore its naturally fluctuating water levels. The Yukon just basks python-like in the thin Arctic sun, coiled between the Bering Sea and the alpine lakes of British Columbia, breathing in and breathing out.”

Until the Aswan Dam was constructed in the 1960s, the people of Egypt counted on the regular spring flooding of the Nile to enrich the soil of the floodplains that left behind rich silt to grow crops. Here in the United States, we too (perhaps inadvertently) used the flood-fertiled soils of the Mississippi floodplain to grow food. Until we built dams and levees, straightened, deepened and restructured river channels, harnessed and tamed a once great wild river, built homes and cities in the flood plain and did all we could (with limited success) to control and eliminate flooding.  Along parts of the Colorado River, officials are now annually releasing water from damns to emulate flooding in an attempt to improve river health negatively affected by the damn and absence of flooding – like lighting small, prescribed fires in forests to emulate wild fires.  

Like wild fires that shaped the forests of the West – periodically clearing underbrush, recycling nutrients, and otherwise keeping fire-evolved, fire-dependent forests healthier – floods flush rivers of old silt and sedimentation, pump new nymph-feeding nutrients into the rivers and enrich the floodplains and watersheds surrounding them. It’s when homes burn, houses and bridges wash down rivers, and human lives are lost we consider fire and flood “catastrophic” and  “devastating” – which, of course, they are to those involved.

But just as our efforts to suppress and contain wildfire has often led to accumulated fuels, denser and thicker forests more susceptible to insect and disease, and therefore less frequent but more intense and damaging fires, our efforts to control and subjugate rivers has led to more accumulated water, less places for water to runoff, and less frequent but more intense and damaging floods.

I sometimes forget when looking at a particular stretch of river that it’s just one piece of a giant system, like fingers connected to hands connected to arms connected to our bodies. There are small tributaries to the Rattlesnake, like Beescove Creek, and the Rattlesnake is just one of many tributaries to the Clark Fork which is a tributary to the Columbia which eventually joins the great big body part we call the Pacific. Just as blood must move freely throughout the body, water—and the fish it sustains, like cells—must be able to move freely up and down and throughout the system. Unfortunately, we’ve clogged and tainted a lot of the parts with erosion, siltation, dams, diversions and the introduction of non-native species that threaten the life blood of our rivers and the life they sustain. When the entire system is healthy and intact, trout and other aquatic life fare better. Even natural drought, fire, and flood can be devastating to aquatic life if they are disconnected from and not free to move about the rest of the system. Simply put: If trout are free to move up and down and between tributaries and rivers they are more apt to not only survive flooding, but thrive from it – as are we all. It’s only when our homes and lives are put in the way that fire and flood become dangerous and destructive.

In most of the West, land managers are learning more and more about the importance of fire, and leaving room, where they can, for fires to burn. Or, in some cases, intentionally putting fire back in the system with prescribed burns. By protecting the wildness of upper tributaries, reconnecting tributaries and restoring and sustaining the integrity of entire watersheds we can and should leave room for floods and recognize the good and importance they do when we are not in the way.

I am glad Rattlesnake Creek still has room to be wild and free and still has room to breathe – to do what it has likely done for eons. And its inhabitants, including the bull trout and westslope cutthroat, still have room to move and survive. A healthy, intact system survives flood and fire; an unhealthy, non-intact system does not.

Rivers flow, rivers swirl, rivers rise and fall and rivers flood. Like watching a powerful grizzly roll giant boulders around in search of marmot; or seeing a giant whale’s tale break the surface of the ocean; or witnessing an avalanche take out a small copse of trees --  the flood I witnessed was just another spectacular, intimidating and humbling display of nature at work; A healthy dose of wildness and freedom. We need to ensure we always have room in our lives for such events, and that we learn to live sustainably with rivers while leaving them room to live and breathe.

Note: This essay was published in the Fall 2011 issue of Trout Unlimited's Trout magazine

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