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A Watershed Runs Through You

When you see that it's the same water that falls as snow and rain, rushes down nearby rivers, passes your lips, brings back the salmon -- this is when you know your watershed.

photo by Joel Sackett
Two volunteers check the water quality in a Bainbridge Island creek that residents hope will soon support a salmon run. Photo by Joel Sackett

If you are hip-deep in a cold, rising river on a winter night, attempting to net a 30-pound chinook salmon, and your goal is to bring the fish and its burden of eggs out of the water alive, your concentration becomes marvelously focused. The world of worries beyond the pool in which you work fades away, might never have existed. And you may feel as intensely alive as you did when you were eight years old. When the memory was fresher, I wrote this:

“To enter the river and attempt to bring this strong creature out of its own medium alive and uninjured is an opportunity to experience a momentary parity between human and salmon, mediated by slippery rocks and swift currents. Vivid experiences between species can put a crack in the resilient veneer of the perception of human dominance over other creatures. Information then begins to flow in both directions, and we gain the ability to learn from salmon, from the landscape itself.”*

Were I to write that paragraph now, I would add that such experiences may destroy the illusion that we humans are in any way separate from the places where we live.

When my wife and I became propertied people near northern California’s Mattole River a quarter century ago, some large part of my motivation for moving was to join my neighbors in an effort to sustain and preserve one of the last half-dozen genetically native chinook salmon runs in northern California. Earlier, I had spent a few years as a commercial salmon fisherman and had become enamored of the drama of the various species’ great thousand-mile tours of the Pacific, always to return to their home rivers to reproduce. At the same time I had learned of the devastation being wrought by industrial fishing and the steady degradation of the fishes’ watershed homes. I left that work feeling much as I imagine some of the last buffalo hunters must have felt.

Our first efforts in our new home river were aimed at increasing the survival rate of the eggs that had been deposited for millennia by our native chinook salmon. So much bare soil had been exposed by the timber boom of the 1950s and 1960s that when two “hundred-year” storms hit, one in 1955 and the other in 1964, the nature of the river was completely changed. What had been a stable, deeply channeled, well-shaded watercourse some 65 miles long was transformed into a shallow, braided, overheated stream devoid of clean spawning gravels and deep, cold rearing pools. Salmon need clean, cold water even more than we humans do, and they need an ample supply of clean gravels. If the gravels are cemented with silt, oxygen can’t reach the fertilized eggs and the eggs suffocate. Without pools deep enough to remain cool through hot summers, the juvenile fish die. Since 1964, the number of returning spawners had declined precipitously.

Our early efforts were encouraging. Capturing a few wild fish each year and depositing their hand-fertilized eggs in tiny backyard incubators tended by residents resulted in an 80 to 90 percent egg-to-fry survival rate compared to perhaps 10 to 15 percent in the damaged river.

Despite this success, we knew this was no enduring solution. The degraded river system was going to take generations to repair itself and that would happen only if the land management practices that had caused the damage were transformed into methods more benign. If we were not to build ourselves, with our inevitable capacity for human error, into a natural system of reproduction that had functioned perfectly for thousands of years, we would need to expand our goals. We needed to invent rehabilitation projects that would hasten the recovery of the river.

Along with most of my neighbors, I’m one of the dwindling few who take their household water directly from the Earth by tapping into a nearby spring. Each time I take a drink, I think, “If water’s not sacred, what is?” Our watershed runs through us. If we were to rehabilitate our watershed, we would need to convince our neighboring land-owners and residents that the watershed not only ran through their individual bodies, but through the well-being of our common community. Each one of us was going to need to examine his or her daily activities and evaluate how they contributed to good watershed citizenship.
Watershed citizenship

A watershed is a simple construct. Since water runs downhill, every drop that falls runs down one side of a hill or ridge or another and gathers into swales, creeks, and sub-drainages that eventually combine into a river system that gives the watershed its name. Most every person, urban or rural, consciously or unconsciously, has some visceral experience of their watershed each day—through glimpses of waterways or ridge lines that surround and infuse their local places. Yet in the early 1980s, when we began our effort, the word either didn’t exist, or was used incorrectly, in many people’s vocabularies. When I talked to groups of college students who occasionally toured our facilities, I would always begin by asking how many of them knew what a watershed is. Few of them raised their hands.

Twenty-some years later, everyone in my tiny watershed knows they’re part of it, and it’s difficult to find a drainage (at least on the West Coast) that isn’t home to a watershed council. Why this relatively rapid development?

In those same 20 years, global environmental alarms have risen to a high-pitched scream. So has our anxiety about our seeming powerlessness to do much as individuals about things like global overheating, ozone depletion, the health of the oceans, and on and on.

A whole lot of people seem to have come to a similar conclusion at the same time: if global problems seem too large for most people to grapple with, it is within our reach to take responsibility for our home places. Clean water is a good organizing principle, and so are native salmon. A watershed of a certain size offers a reasonable scale of endeavor that’s a good fit for human visceral and mental capabilities.

Watershed councils are organized toward a variety of ends—ecological restoration, conservation and preservation of lands, development of sustainable resource management strategies, environmental education—usually in combination. Most create situations that get neighbors, often with conflicting ideologies, working together toward a common goal that places them in a benign relationship to their home places and each other. Such situations create an accelerated learning environment; residents are not only directly exposed to the lessons of their home ecologies, but they find themselves learning from each other.

Do this long enough and you may find yourself and your community edging forward toward a 21st century model of the way we humans have lived for 99 percent of our time on Earth—in intimate and very practical relation to a place large enough to feed us and small enough to understand intimately the actual dimensions of our interactive function.

Not that this is a complete equation: the remarkable series of wrong decisions our species has made in the last few hundred years as we embraced the Industrial Revolution—and then the Atomic Age—are not going to go away by themselves. All the unintended consequences of our heedless growth are leaking into every corner of the planet. In this larger sense, there is no longer any place that can be considered entirely separately from another. Inevitably, community focus on locale will soon require engaging larger political and economic issues—I hope from a more well-informed and full-hearted position.

Take my own small, remote watershed: 300 square miles, about 3,000 people. After 25 years of population and habitat work, the Mattole Salmon Group may have successfully reversed the extirpation of native chinook and coho salmon here. But since our river lies close to the southernmost range of these species, we are forced to consider the anticipated consequences of ocean warming. (One partial solution remains local: a high percentage of homes are powered by alternative energy.) We can’t afford to ignore our government’s deep denial of the need to break our planet’s fever.

Human overpopulation has also shown its face in the most meaningful way, even here, increasing the demands for household water in the headwaters region to the point that the uppermost 11 miles of the river have gone underground for the last two years in the critical month of October. Local response: after 20 years of consciousness-raising, the restoration groups are able to assist an active and vigorous interest in water conservation among residents.

In 1988, the Mattole Restoration Council distributed maps to every resident and landowner demonstrating that the 9 percent of old-growth forest habitat remaining in the watershed had no legal protection. Ten years later, through the cooperation of very small local land trusts and very large government agencies, two-thirds of that habitat had permanent protection. The remaining one-third, the largest contiguous stand remaining, is being fragmented by a corporation managed from Texas. But even the most conservative landowners here no longer think of centralized corporate management as allies in their commitment to private property rights. The same landowners have organized into a countywide nonprofit, which among other things, is mounting demonstration projects in sustainable forestry. And there may be majority support for a brave county district attorney who is suing the corporation for misrepresentation in their environmental reports.

In the last few years, several coastal river communities nearby have successfully resisted corporate proposals to privatize their waters and export them to populous southern California cities set in the desert. Thus some of us find it pressing to engage in the worldwide struggle against the privatization of water.

And so it goes. As we become more embedded in our home watersheds as a way of restoring our relationship to the natural world, the interpenetration of all aspects of world ecologies and global economies also seizes our minds. If we have been good students of what our watersheds have to teach us, one of the things we will have learned is to choose the scale of action that fits our particular capabilities and to pursue that action with a full heart—as if our lives, and the fullness thereof, depended on it, which they do. Barry Lopez writes, “I know of no restorative of heart, body, and soul more effective against hopelessness than the restoration of the Earth.” And if water isn’t sacred, what is?


Freeman House is a co-founder of the Mattole Salmon Group and the Mattole Restoration Council and author of the award-winning Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species. *The excerpt quoted is from “To Learn the Things We Need to Know” in Helping Nature Heal, ed. Richard Nilsen.

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