Evolution: A Memorial to Salmon

Travels with Charlie

The drive on Highway 49 from Coloma to Yosemite is particularly spectacular in late May just before Memorial Day. Winding through the Sierra foothills, the road twists and turns through luxuriant shades of green punctuated by the brilliant gold of poppies and the deep purples of lupine. As one leaves the beauty of the American River canyon, one is rewarded by a succession of other canyons, each carved by a different river. After the American River with its three forks, the North, Middle and South Fork, one encounters the canyons of the Consumnes and Mokelumne Rivers. Then comes the North Fork of the Stanislaus River, the main Stanislaus River itself, the Tuolumne, and finally the Merced River, which courses through the legendary Yosemite Valley. If you can imagine your thumb as the Sierras, these rivers would be the lines on your outstretched palm, each carving its way from its origin westward toward the sea. To encounter so much natural beauty in so small a space would seem to be a timeless gift. Yet when I began boating these rivers in 1974 every one of these places was about to be destroyed by a dam. It was already too late for a portion of the Tuolumne River, which once had a valley called Hetch Hetchy that John Muir felt was equal in its beauty and grandeur to the Yosemite Valley. When it was destroyed by an unnecessary reservoir, they say it broke John Muir’s heart. He died soon after. I can imagine how he felt because the next valley to be destroyed was that of the Stanislaus River, my first whitewater love, which was lost to the far more questionable New Melones Reservoir. The struggle to save the “Stan”, at the time the most popular whitewater river in the West, created Friends of the River and launched the river conservation movement in California. It also motivated me to establish Scott Free River Expeditions as a means of promoting river conservation. Scott Free later became Mother Lode.

The Stanislaus River disappeared under the New Melones Reservoir destroying the West's most popular whitewater river rafting run.
The Stanislaus River disappeared under the New Melones Reservoir destroying the West’s most popular whitewater river rafting run.

As I cross the New Melones Reservoir, I notice the series of bathtub rings that scar the place where California’s once most popular whitewater river once flowed. The water this reservoir contains was intended for irrigation and yet no farmers ever signed contracts for it. They preferred the older, cheaper water contracts and farmers chose to install drip irrigation and drill for groundwater to avoid buying water at higher prices. Resultantly, the destruction of the Stan never served its original purpose. What a waste!

River conservationists have succeeded in preventing the building of more dams in the Sierras since the Stan, and no more rivers have been lost, at least so far. Yet, there is an active effort to remove a portion of the Merced River from its current Wild and Scenic River protection and there are proposals to bring back the Auburn Dam project on the North and Middle Forks of the American River. The U.S. Congressman from this district, Tom McClintock, favors not only these projects, but wants to lift environmental protections for salmon and other endangered species because of California’s current drought. I wonder, where will the next forty years lead us?

As the road twists and turns after leaving the reservoir I am reminded that I am drawing close to Sonora, which in the late 1970s was the location of Tuolumne County’s General Hospital. I began my career there as an Emergency Medicine Physician; working 24-hour shifts, solo, without the backup I enjoyed in big ERs in the city. Although some compare the experience to performing a high wire act without a safety net, I prefer to compare it to rowing Class V whitewater at big flows. When the going gets rough you need to quickly read the river, choose a route, and then stick to it. No matter how hopeless it seems you must keep pulling on the oars, and never give up. It also helps to have a “Plan B”, because your initial plan usually goes out the window after the first big “hole” or reversal. On Memorial Day over thirty years ago I had one of those Class V days at Tuolumne General Hospital in Sonora, and recalling it I still get a shiver up my spine.

I had just finished the first year of my Residency at U. C. Davis, and being very green and perhaps more than a little stupid, I agreed to substitute as a “moonlighter” for another more experienced physician who was too ill to work. Before my 24-hour shift was over I had seen several times the usual number of patients and in the process the hospital set a series of records. There were several helicopter evacuations to Stanford’s spinal center in Santa Clara carrying my patients with unstable cervical vertebral fractures from diving accidents. This used up all our Crutchfield tongs, a spinal stabilization device I had never used before, and after reading the directions on the first set, by the third patient I was getting good at placing them. Then came a severe head injury from an autogyro helicopter blade that required a burr hole, a procedure made obsolete by having a CT scanner and a neurosurgeon, neither of which was available to me at the time. I delivered a baby in the parking lot, intubated an asthmatic child with end stage respiratory failure complicated by a pneumothorax which required a chest tube, sewed up chainsaw lacerations until we had to send out for more suture, scrubbed out road rash until my own arms hurt, and between the sick kids and heart attacks, I was just barely keeping my head above water by afternoon. Then the tourist bus rolled over and the triage exercise began.

Charlie wants this river to remain Wild and Scenic. What river is it?
Charlie wants this river to remain Wild and Scenic. What river is it?
We call the ER “the pit” for a number of reasons, and it is true that whatever doesn’t kill you in the pit can make you stronger. But what if it kills your patients? You cannot bring them back, no matter how sorry you may be they died. We need to wake up to the fact that it will be this way with our planet. What we do in the next few decades will be critical to the outcome. The future generations that judge us will know that we should have known better. After all, it was laid out for us forty years ago by scientists who have only been joined by more scientists, all sounding ever more dire warnings! We should listen to Dr. Peter Raven, past President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), who observes in the foreword to their publication AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: “We have driven the rate of biological extinction, the permanent loss of species, up several hundred times beyond its historical levels, and are threatened with the loss of a majority of all species by the end of the 21st century.” How will we be remembered by those future generations? They may understand what “triage” means, and that we had to choose amongst the sick to help the survivable, but will they forgive use for being the cause of the sickness in the first place? I have asked myself whether that day in Sonora taught me lessons that would be useful in this future mankind is creating? Actually, I think it does, and this brings me to Evolution and Salmon.

As any biology student knows, the process of evolution is the natural selection of genes based upon their fitness, that is, their production of characteristics that promote survival. It is a common misconception that evolution takes a long time, for instance, millions of years. Actually the time required depends on the “selective pressure”, if it is extreme the process of evolution can be very fast. Take, for example, the case of “The Beak of the Finch” as documented in the Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same title written by Johnathan Weiner. In this case the size and configuration of the beak of a subspecies of Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands changed from sharp to blunt in a single generation. The reason was a severe drought, not unlike the one we are currently experiencing in California. The drought eliminated the plants producing the small seeds that the sharp beaked finches specialized in eating; leaving only a hard, large variety of seed only the blunt beaked finches could crack. Resultantly, all the sharp beaked finches died, leaving only the blunt beaked finches to reproduce. Interestingly, once the drought resolved and the various other types of seeds were again available, low frequency genes in the blunt beaked finch gene pool reasserted themselves and ultimately the sharp beaked finches dominated again. This illustrates the concept of a gene pool as a dynamic equilibrium, not a one-way street. It is also an argument in favor of genetic diversity. I think of it as a kind of genetic lifeboat and similar to a lifeboat, you only fully appreciate its function when your ship sinks. These river canyons contain many such lifeboats. When these lifeboats are themselves in danger of disappearing they are referred to as “hotspots”. These are places where unique species and important genetic pools exist that are in danger of extinction.

Pink salmon emerge from the Susitna River's silty flow just a few miles downstream from the State of Alaska's proposed mega-dam.
Pink salmon emerge from the Susitna River’s silty flow just a few miles downstream from the State of Alaska’s proposed mega-dam.

Recently Representative Tom McClintock contended that in the face of California’s current drought it is wrong for our government “to choose fish over people” by using water to preserve salmon populations at the expense of agriculture. Actually, this misrepresents the situation, since people depend on salmon in a variety of ways, including food and jobs. The way I see it, the choice is actually between water for salmon versus water for the huge monocultures of nonnative species such as almonds and alfalfa that populate the Representative’s district. These almond trees, it turns out, may soon need much more than just cheap water from the government. The recent release of the National Climate Assessment, the release of new Arctic and Antarctic ice sheet recession data, and the IPCC’s most recent data on ocean acidification and temperature rise, all point to the fact that the effects of human induced climate change are being seen not in the future, but are here now. These changes are also surprisingly large and sudden.

One local example of such change is the disappearance of “tule fog”, and its relationship with almonds deserves exploring. It turns out almond trees require cold conditions to bloom, which in turn, has historically been produced in California’s Central Valley by that dense, cold, sometimes depressing stuff Valley folk call “tule fog”. A recent study by U. C. Davis scientists, which is based upon historical NASA weather satellite data, documents the rapid disappearance of the tule fog with an average decrease in the Central Valley as a whole by 46% over the last 32 years. In Sacramento itself the average decrease was from 223 hours per year to just 30 hours. Although this might be good if it only decreased the incidence of traffic accidents, if there is no blooming of almond trees, there are no almonds. What are left are just thirsty trees!

Yosemite Falls was once threatened by a dam. John Muir helped save the Valley but lost the Hetch Hetchy Valley.
Representative McClintock fails to mention in his fish versus people scold, that there are over 1200 dams in California and only one undammed river, the Smith River. In fact, the vast system of hydrological plumbing that is currently in place already captures 97% of California’s water runoff. Since more dams will not produce more water, and since over 80% of the existing water is already allocated to agribusiness crops such as almonds and alfalfa, the wisdom of creating and maintaining these vast monocultures should not be treated as sacred, but rather be questioned. Which brings us to alfalfa for cows. Granted, people need to eat. But did you know that 2 trillion gallons of California water is used to raise alfalfa and that 60% of this crop is exported to China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates to feed cows in those countries? This amounts to exporting water to these countries during a drought.

Personally, I like almonds and I’m not sure how I feel about feeding cows in foreign countries. However, since the issue for California salmon is extinction, I find it more sensible to reserve the water mandated by law for salmon. Today mankind faces massive challenges. There are too many humans consuming too many resources to allow for a state of sustainable equilibrium. We know this, yet we seem unable to make the necessary changes to address the problem. It is often said that we as a species are destroying the planet Earth. Actually, I am more impressed that we are destroying what we like most about the planet, including salmon. When Dr. Raven says “a majority of species” he means this is an extinction event not unlike the Fifth Extinction that followed the impact of an asteroid in the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago. The difference is that the Sixth Extinction is not being imposed from space, but rather humans are choosing it. Whereas the Fifth Extinction took several thousand years, the human caused Sixth Extinction may play out over only one hundred years! Faced with such threats it is time for humankind to carefully reflect and reorder our priorities. It makes sense to refrain from simplistic slogans that pose false choices, and, speaking metaphorically, to evolve culturally as a species. We need to become wise as well as powerful. After all, extinction is forever. On the road with Charlie the River Dog,

Scott the River Doc

Picture of Scott Underwood

Scott Underwood

Company owner Scott Underwood has enjoyed the privilege of helping Mother Lode share his love of rivers with over 290,000 people. He is proud to have helped facilitate the writing of over 29,000 letters which, in turn, have helped save 15 rivers along the Sierra.
Activites at Mother Lode

On The American River

At The Adventure Center

Team Building & River Skills

50th Anniversary Ropes Rafting

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