Rivers are Us

If you want to study a single topic to help you understand history, the environment, politics and the economy…choose rivers.

This sketch shows the Skykomish River, one of the last wild rivers in Washington State…close to where a new dam is planned. The free-flowing river would be slowed, waterfalls would all but disappear, and this view of Mt. Index and the Cascades would be forever changed.

What other topic is so intertwined with everything on earth? Rivers sculpt landforms; living beings depend on rivers for food, shelter, transportation, and water; people struggle to control rivers for their own purposes. It’s all there.

Rivers are dynamic—moving and changing constantly. They meander, they rise and fall, flood, dry up, erode here, deposit there. Like a caged animal, rivers often do not respond well to confinement.

Many of my interpretive projects have been about river restoration. After a century of large-scale damming, diking and diverting, we have figured out that we’ve been too heavy-handed in how we treat rivers—people and wildlife have suffered as a result. Many agencies and organizations are hard at work to restore some of the natural ways rivers work.

What is a wild river worth?

There aren’t many rivers left in Washington State that are free-flowing—unrestricted by dams. One of the last major wild rivers, the South Fork of the Skykomish, may be losing its wild status. As of spring 2012 there is a plan underway to give the Skykomish its first dam. The project is hugely controversial, and has resulted in the river being added to the List of America’s Most Endangered Rivers by the organization American Rivers.

In any dam project, there are winners and losers. When the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula was completed in 1913, many people prospered from the access to cheap electricity. But, the Klallam Indians saw the wild river and salmon they depended on virtually disappear. And now the Elwha is the site of an enormous, unprecedented restoration project: removing the dams and restoring the habitat for salmon, wildlife and people.

In Snohomish County, many people want access to affordable energy, and some see damming the Skykomish as an efficient way to achieve it. The area is growing fast, and the economy is always slower than we would like. And, since there are no salmon in the upper reaches of the Skykomish anyway—they are prevented from moving upstream past the waterfalls—it seems to many like the perfect place for a dam.

But, what is lost when we use up the last bit of something? If there is only a tiny fraction of something left…old growth forest, or tall-grass prairie, or peat bogs, or wild rivers, shouldn’t that loss be figured into the cost/benefit of using it up? Do we have a responsibility to future generation to leave some wild things? What is wildness worth?

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your comments! Just click on the light gray “thought bubble” next to the title of this post.

For more on the Skykomish Dam:


For more on the Elwha Dam:



For more on the Skykomish River as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers:


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