How a River Is Used (And Used Up)

A CLASSIC in modern environmental writing is Garrett Hardin's essay ``The Tragedy of the Commons.'' Here, the noted University of California ecologist showed how a shared village pasture was likely to become degraded because each villager would put as many cattle on the commons as possible. Why? Because while profits go to the individual, the costs are shared by all.

This is exactly what has happened with fisheries around the world, which have been declining at an alarming rate. The latest chapter in this decline came last week with the announcement by the United States Department of Commerce that $12 million had been designated as disaster aid to help salmon fishermen in the Pacific Northwest.

Although I've never hooked a salmon in my life, I feel some personal responsibility here because like a lot of people in the Pacific Northwest, we heat our house by burning fish. Let me explain.

We're all-electric: stove, water heater, house heat. Our electricity comes from the grid powered by dams up on the Columbia River. Nice and clean and relatively cheap compared with the cost per kilowatt-hour elsewhere.

But those dams are major fish-killers.

Young salmon not chewed up in the turbines as they head out to the Pacific from inland spawning grounds face disease and predators in the slack water behind the dams.

Many more of them are lost when, as adults headed back upstream to spawn, they fail to negotiate all the fish ladders. And vast parts of the 259,000-square-mile river basin are simply cut off to migrating fish by the 211 major dams built over the years.

Dams providing energy to homes, businesses, and industry throughout the region are only the most obvious culprit, however, and this is where ``The Tragedy of the Commons'' comes in.

There are several dozen major polluters along the Columbia and the other rivers that drain into it, including pulp and paper mills, metals-production facilities, food-manufacturing plants, and mining operations. Cattle grazing along streams and soil erosion from farming take their toll.

Logging on steep hillsides causes more erosion, as does road-building by the US Forest Service in support of the timber industry. (The Forest Service has built 340,000 miles of roads, 1/3 of them in the Northwest.) The list goes on.

None of these individuals, businesses, or government agencies consciously decided to wipe out salmon. But the bottom line is that annual fish runs on the Columbia, which historically have reached 10 million to 16 million, have dropped to about 2.5 million. Half of the original migrating fish runs are at risk; a quarter already are extinct.

All of this has led Angus Duncan of the Northwest Power Planning Council to conclude that ``the Columbia River is used up.''

``Without intending to, in small ways and large, we have overcommitted the Columbia River and the watershed it drains,'' Mr. Duncan observes. ``This has occurred in part because the users and managers of the river, acting as though the resource was inexhaustible, had little reason to coordinate or restrain their separate uses.''

While this threatens the survival of the ecosystem's most important indicator of well-being, Duncan stresses that ``it also threatens the values and livelihood of the people who live within the Columbia Basin.''

The first to feel the effects are native Americans and commercial fishermen who depend on salmon for cultural and economic purposes.

But in the end, all who benefit from this magnificent river system - or from any common resource anywhere in the world - will have to examine their use and abuse of it. If not, the kind of tragedy Garrett Hardin warned of will be all that much harder to avoid.

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