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Monday, May 21, 2012

The White Salmon: A River Reborn

It’s not often this Rat gets to commune with his fellow bank-dwellers, let alone a horde of 750 of them. But that’s exactly what happened two weeks ago, when river rats from all over the country—the world, actually—converged in Portland, Oregon.

What, beyond an appearance by the Pied Piper himself, could attract so many from so far—a 20-year Limburger, perhaps? (Definitely…but not this time.) In this case, we gathered for River Rally an annual celebration of river and environmental victories hosted by the River Network and (for the first time) the Waterkeeper Alliance. It was the largest international gathering of river rats to date. To the terror of some, it appears that we river rats are multiplying. Rapidly.

Time and time again over the weekend, Rat heard inspirational tales of countless steadfast and dedicated river rats, toiling away to protect their local river, stream, bay, sound, or slough. Many of them, it appears, are winning these battles, and we rightly celebrated them with good food and drink, sometimes until the wee hours of morning. But even this party-loving Rat needs a break from the reveling, so I stole away up the Columbia River Gorge to see the recently-uncovered new digs of the White Salmon River.

The former site of Northwestern Lake--now the free-flowing White Salmon River--1/4 mile upstream of the breached Condit Dam.
The White Salmon, as you may have heard, is just about tops for recent river success stories. It, combined with its Washington brethren the Elwha River, represents the largest dam removal effort to date in the nation. The White Salmon enters the mighty Columbia River—historically known for its epic salmon and steelhead runs—about 25 miles upstream of the Bonneville Dam, the lowest dam on the Columbia. The narrow canyons and raging rapids of the White Salmon are a powerful force, so much so that you humans decided to plop a hydropower dam on it (as you like to do, it seems).

The Condit Dam, built in 1913, had long lost its maximum power-generating capacity over its 100-year lifespan, due the buildup of an estimated 2,300,000 cubic yards of sediment that reduced reservoir storage by 60% (Steve Stampfli, Condit Hydroelectric Project, Information Series, Sheet 1). Additionally, the dam’s owner, PacificCorp, in order to obtain a new Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) license, would have been required (per the Endangered Species Act) to get salmon and steelhead past the 125-foot dam, to access native spawning grounds upstream. Between the cost of facility upgrades and lost reservoir storage, maintaining the dam as a hydropower facility was seen as unprofitable, and PacificCorp removed the dam this past October (culiminating years of discussion and planning efforts). Do yourself a favor and watch the stunning timelapse video of the breaching of the dam, taken by fellow river rats Andy Maser and Steve Stampfli, posted below.

Today, the White Salmon runs with all of the unbridled force and energy that a wild river should. The river has scoured through about 50 feet of sediment that was formerly lakebed to return to its original riverbed from 100 years ago. With a big spring snowmelt and runoff event in the next couple years, possibly along with some help from PacificCorp, it should wipe out much of the unsightly sediment on its banks in due time. PacificCorp will also revegetate the remaining sediment banks over the next two years, and maintain the site for the next ten years (Stampfli, Condit Hydroelectric Project, Information Series, Sheet 3).

Bank erosion is significant on Little Buck Creek, once a  'finger' of Northwestern Lake and now a tributary to the White Salmon. Note the dock protruding from the bank, and the section of dock lying on the bank ten feet below.
Rat spent a perfect May afternoon nosing around the banks of the river in the area upstream of the now-breached Condit Dam, at the former site of Northwestern Lake (in an area once known as “Jaws Canyon” prior to the construction of the dam). Notable were stumps of massive trees along the riverbank that were removed 100 years ago (because you can’t have trees growing up through the surface of an impoundment). Though the landscape still bears a somewhat traumatized appearance, its scars are only temporary…but its rejuvenation is eternal, and unmistakable.

Rat, not normally a mystical sort, was roused by the aura and vitality of this renewed place. It holds a sacred feeling, the kind usually ascribed only to houses of worship or holy sites. But here, below towering Douglas firs and western red cedars, the divine waters of the White Salmon run free again. For the first time in 100 years, it will beckon forth the return of coho salmon, spring and fall Chinook salmon, and steelhead trout runs, which form the life-giving base of the entire Pacific Northwest foodweb. Their inevitable return will signify a miracle of its own kind, rivaled by few others Rat has ever encountered.

Massive stumps, relics from tree removal efforts 100 years ago during construction of the Condit Dam, mark the former (original) riverbank.
*For an incredible wealth of resources about the White Salmon dam removal, see Andy Maser and Steve Stampfli’s exceptional blog White Salmon Restored: A Timelapse Project at Rat wishes to personally thank Andy and Steve for the content and information contained on their blog that was referenced or used in the writing of this post.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

All Hail Hurley and the Hell They Avoided

This Rat was nosing around northern Wisconsin recently, discovering, among other things, that one of Wisconsin's border rivers -- the Montreal, that is, the river no one gets right in a quiz about border rivers -- has two branches. 

Wow, huh? 

Well, there's more. In tracking the branches of the Montreal, you travel to Hurley, Wisconsin, in northern Iron County hard against the Michigan border and its twin city, Ironwood.

Past Glory
Hurley lets you know, early and often, that is is a mining town.  Or WAS a mining town.  It's clear by the names of the businesses and streets, the public art and historic markers, that this burg clings to its iron mining past like a rusty nail to a magnet.  It's clear by the pro-mining yard signs that they continue to cling to mining as its future.

There's something sad about that. Area residents are no doubt sad and angry that their chance for another iron mine, and the jobs and activity that comes with it, was snatched from their grasp like a pick axe wrenched from their hand by a cranky straw boss.  Rat overheard none of this, but  it is known they blame environmentalists and Indians and one state Senator who blocked legislation that would have allowed the mine to operate without any meaningful environmental standards.

That mine would not have been their granddad's mine. 

Rat's sadness about all this runs in a couple of directions.  Rat is sad for the good folks of Hurley who were led down a primrose path by a mining company that knew from the beginning a mine in that area would not work unless they could be utterly careless with water and tailings and paying local governments for the damage they'd cause.  Rat is sad for the fact that it is obvious that the good folks of Hurley need some new kind of economic activity.  There are way too many bars per capita in that town -- not a good measure of community health.

Hurley's Hurdles
We then advise them, "Protect your resources and make money through tourism!"  But you sense a "been there done that" attitude about tourism in the town, and perhaps a self-fulfilling prophesy even:  "Tourism didn't really work before, so let's not try very hard at it," they think.  And because they don't try very hard, it's not a very appealing place, and its charms are hard to find.  So tourists don't come, and they say, "See, tourism doesn't really work here." And there's your vicious cycle.

This Rat did his best to spend a few special grains and nuts to do my share for the local economy.  But the occasional "quiet sport" tourist is notorious for not spending much money -- kayaks don't use gas, we bring our Clif Bars from downstate, and we drink modestly. (Okay, not my friends.)  One barkeep, in sizing up the tourism potential, told me that snowmobilers "don't even drink no more."  That's probably a good thing, but it hints at the limited imagination that appears to permeate the town about what it could be. 

I went back to the Montreal River to find Peterson Falls, a sweet little cascade of the East Branch.  It's poorly marked, and its very unofficial feel made it deliciously primitive.  But Iron County boasts 18 waterfalls.  What could they do to  make Iron County Wisconsin's "waterfall destination?"  Would that be the catalyst to put in the map -- the draw that triggers the new restaurant, that inspires the new convenience store, which in turn convinces some retirees to settle there, which puts money into a developer's pocket who then feeds the local lumber mart and Friday fish fry joint? 

Hurley could at least try.  They would be in total charge of their own fate, and maybe begin to imagine a new future. 

Meanwhile, go to Peterson Falls while in Hurley,  and while you're at it, find the confluence of the two branches of the river.  Nothing breathtaking or spectacular, but very satisfying.  That river has seen change and upheaval over the millenia.  So will Hurley. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

That Smell of Sewage, and of Shirking Responsibility

This business of the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources cutting slack to a septic waste hauler smells, well, like raw sewage.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp’s responses have gone from defensiveness, to shooting the messenger (criticizing the Wisconsin State Journal for, essentially, doing what a good newspaper does), to proposing that DNR political appointees reveal if they got campaign contributions from someone they expect to regulate. 

Rat will take up the stinky problem of “septage” spreading on farmland in a minute, but first – to the almost-as-stinky proposal by Secretary Stepp to “fix” this problem by having agency staff reveal conflicts of interest they might have with people they should regulate. 

This assumes that DNR is run by people who get campaign contributions. The fact is, very few people, even political appointees, are in a position to get campaign contributions that would affect their decisions at the agency.  

This “fix” is a smokescreen.  The underlying problem with the DNR is its single-minded focus on serving the “customer,” whom the current regime sees as business people who should not be regulated, and the DNR’s job is to clear regulatory brush out of their way.  This mentality overlooks an essential fact:  that ALL citizens of the state are DNR’s “customers.”  The agency’s job is to protect the resource.  By giving this septic waste hauler a pass for violating state law, they were willing to risk contaminating the wells of other “customers” – those people whose houses adjoined the fields where the septic waste was illegally spread.

One not unreasonable excuse Stepp gave for lax enforcement by DNR since Scott Walker was elected was a lack of staff.  But the Walker administration has no intention of beefing up enforcement of polluters.  Gov. Walker defended the DNR's actions on the septic waste incident in a statement last week, and in a recent email invitation to environmental groups to discuss the DNR’s upcoming budget, the Governor’s office told us we should come to the meeting with these “guiding principles” in mind:  

“….not spending money that the state doesn’t have; smaller government is better government; and people create jobs, not government.”  

Translation:  don’t come asking for more DNR staff, and don’t ask us to enforce the law. 

Speaking of laws– those regulating the spreading of liquid waste, colloquially known as “sludge” –spreading sludge on farmland is legal, and is mildly regulated by DNR.  State and county conservation staffers who work with sludge haulers say that while municipalities and industries can generally be trusted to play by the rules, the guys hauling septic wastes are often cowboys – flaunting the rules and not bothering with the paperwork required.  

A simple policy solution to that problem would be to send all septic wastes to the nearest municipal sewage treatment plant, rather than spreading it, raw and untreated, on farmland.

Even with that change, we need a DNR willing to enforce the law. We’ll see if DNR can give a credible response to what’s been exposed, through this stinky incident, about its official mindset.