Most summer afternoons, I settle into a natural hollow at the base of a sizable cedar tree beside Laird Creek. The creek burbles and runs, curling over cobbles, carrying water downhill. Lying back, I watch the tree’s cool branches spin and whorl above my head. Sometimes, I fall asleep, lulled by the joyful noise that surrounds me. Is the creek simply responding to the forces of gravity, or is something else going on? Is the feeling of freedom that surrounds me only a reflection of my inner experience, or does the water feel free, too?
In The Biology of Wonder, the scientist Andreas Weber speaks of the natural world as a “richly articulate, expressive medium.” A trained molecular biologist, Weber sensed at some point in his work that nature was not a mute back-drop of cause-effect reactions. Natural systems ceased to be neutral in their movements. Forests, mountains, wetlands, soaring birds, grazing deer, tiny insects, swarms of bees and fish: all these became for Weber beings that were expressive, imaginative and animated.
His book concludes with a startling proposition: that animals, plants and their natural environments are more like us than we dare think.
Anyone who has driven along the mid and lower Columbia River has seen the grand dams that capture water for power. From Grand Coulee to Bonneville, water creates electricity 11 separate times in the U.S. before it reaches the Pacific Ocean. The cycle has, since the mid-1960s, been enhanced by water storage in Canada’s Arrow reservoir. The 1964 international Treaty requires Canada to provide consistent “flows” throughout the year. This Canada accomplishes through dams that interrupt the water’s natural impulse to move downhill.
I’ve written about this before, but it has come to the front of my thoughts as a result of a recent message from B.C. Hydro. A few times a month, the Canadian public utility provides updates on reservoir operations in the form of a chart that lists all the publically owned reservoirs in the Columbia and Kootenay River systems above the boundary, with a series of measurements in feet and meters and arrows that point up or down. The vertical measurements tell residents where to expect the reservoir shoreline to be in the weeks ahead. A person reading every email throughout the year can follow the general principle of the Treaty: store spring runoff in Canada, then use it gallon by gallon, vertical foot by vertical foot, to process the water efficiently through the hot summer (air conditioners) and cold winter (heaters).
The recent message describes how run-off forecasts throughout the international river basin are “continuing to drop.” In other words, it’s another dry year. It reminds residents that the early peak of the reservoir and the early timing on the descending water levels are a “direct response to runoff conditions” and 2016’s “below average rainfall.” Here in Canada, however, we have had lots of intermittent rain. Things don’t seem that dry. In fact, as I write this, a violent thunderstorm has swirled through the valley to soak the ground and give Laird Creek a fresh, joyful charge.
Yet, weather throughout the whole basin determines how the upper Basin’s utilities control water. It’s the wild card that eliminates predictability and complete control. Last year, for instance, the international basin’s precipitation average was 69% of normal. The dry year resulted in minimal in-flows south of the boundary along the “American” Columbia River. In a normal year, Canada’s contribution of water-flow is 35-40% of the total. Last year, the Canadian contribution was closer to 50%, making up some of the difference in an American summer drought.
Snow is the first and most important reservoir in the Columbia River system. Until recently, abundant snows north of the boundary were to be expected, not wished for. In any given January, snow might fall steadily here in the mountains, prompting an initial snowpack forecast of 110 or 120% of normal. But if the snow thins out to create a winter drought (as it has several times in the past decade), the forecast can drop to 90% or even less, alerting hydro-engineers of a coming water shortage that will influence how the river is managed.
This year’s near-normal snowpack could not compensate for the early, hot spring weather that reduced nature’s white, fluffy reservoir to bare slopes of alpine scree far earlier than predicted, as I wrote about in my May column. The current weather anomaly has focused attention yet again on summer flows, recognized as critical for salmon. Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, those making power on the river must also consider the needs of the salmon. Gradually, since the 1990s, salmon flows have become an un-official adjunct to the Treaty. Cold water flowing from the north helps the salmon better navigate a generally warmer river.
The ironies cannot be overlooked by residents of the upper Columbia River valley who endure the reservoir’s shifting shorelines, and whose own access to salmon disappeared in the 1940s when the Canadian government did not require the U.S. to construct a fish ladder at Grand Coulee dam. Boaters, fishing enthusiasts and any residents living along the Arrow and Lake Roosevelt reservoirs are reminded on a daily basis that the river’s flow is tightly managed, analyzed and numerically measured down to vertical feet and kilowatt hours.
It seems a long reach from the edge of the freely flowing creek where I live to the dry pages of the Columbia River Treaty. Yet the same water flowing joyfully past me in Laird Creek enters the West Arm of Kootenay Lake, bumps west through several Canadian dams and generating stations along the lower Kootenay River, and eventually joins up with the Columbia, where it carries on south across the boundary to wait its turn in Roosevelt reservoir before passing through the American dams.
This was originally published in the August 2016 issue of the North Columbia Monthly.