Water on the Brain

We drink them, play in them, and solve the world’s problems on their banks. We also tourniquet them with dams, foul them beyond recognition and then engage in legal wars over their contents and how we can return to a time when we drank them just a little bit, played in them gently and had far fewer problems to solve, sitting on the banks.

1) Coming up short
For some years, Oregon had proudly proclaimed its 440-foot D River in Lincoln City as the shortest river in the world, earning a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Not to be outdone, the 200-foot Roe River in Montana took over the record in 1989, largely due to finesse in measuring by some elementary school students — one of whom appeared on The Tonight Show with NFL player and Great Falls native Dallas Neil. The D River supporters claimed that the kids had capitalized on Neil and a drainage ditch, and, understandably pissed off, the people of Lincoln City took another measurement, and somehow whittled the D down to a compact 120 feet, marked at “extreme high tide.” Perhaps due to the fact that this was more of a Complete Bullshit competition than of river length, Guinness first offered a dual title to the towns, then abandoned the Shortest River category in 2006.

2) Victory, one dam at a time
It’s not easy to dredge up great news out of economic downturn or the state of the West’s rivers, but it appears that cash-strapped bureaucrats are to thank, at least somewhat, for the disappearance of a few outmoded dams. The Powerdale hydroelectric dam on Oregon’s Hood River was taken out last fall after the powers-that-be decided it was the cheapest option in dealing with the 1923 facility. The tear-down improved several miles of salmon passage and 465 acres associated with the project have been transferred to the Columbia Land Trust. The Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River disappeared last fall as well, improving access to 333 miles of spawning habitat, including 1.5 miles that had been inundated by the dam’s reservoir. In 2010, the American Rivers group and 25 other parties signed an agreement with utility company PacifiCorp to take down four dams on California’s Klamath River in 2020. All told, 450 American dams have been removed since 1999.

3) Oh crap! It’s La Llorona
If you’ve grown up in the Southwest, chances are you’ve had a seriously twisted babysitter or desperate parent who has threatened to hand you over to La Llorona if you didn’t change things up (and I will attest that this has worked well with my own son). The legend varies from place to place and follows Hispanic culture, but this suffices: Woman sees husband with another woman and gets pissed off, so naturally she throws her own children in the river, only to regret this mightily and carry on her mournful wailing well past her own death. These days she is said to be in the business of dragging children into rivers if they stay out too late, smoke their parents’ marijuana or otherwise fall into bad graces. In Santa Fe, people have encountered La Llorona’s spirit repeatedly in the PERA (Public Employees Retirement Association) Building, which is built on an old graveyard (as always) not far from the Santa Fe River. There are creepy reports of cries in the hallways and unseen hands pushing people on the stairs.

4) Violated
Between its history of uranium mining and the oft-maligned prairie dog shoot that is no more, at least officially, the little town of Nucla, Colo., has had more than its share of PR standoffs. The Nucla Station coal-fired power plant doesn’t help that image much, nor does it bode well for the nearby Dolores River, scoring 45 Clean Water Act violations as of 2009 — more than any other plant in the West (well, many plants had a convenient “no information available” on their reports). So said the New York Times in its “Toxic Waters” series, which pegged Reliant Energy’s facility in New Florence, Penn., as the worst offender, with 523 violations and apparently zero fines — the norm for water offenses.

5) A list to avoid
The Upper Colorado River came in at No. 6 for the 2010 American Rivers Most Endangered list, largely due to a) the river being tapped out from too many diversions over the years and b) new threats from two proposed diversion projects — the Windy Gap Firming project and Moffat Tunnel Collection System. The list isn’t so much a rundown of the most-polluted or otherwise messed-up rivers, but rather those that are facing major socio-political obstacles in the coming year. River watchers say that if the diversions go as proposed, the Upper Colorado is screwed. If the projects use appropriate river protections, they could herald an era of water supply planning that incorporates water development with, oddly enough, the needs of the river. Elsewhere in the West, Oregon’s Chetco River came in at No. 7 because of a strip-mining proposal; the Teton River in Idaho scored at No. 8 due to threats of the Teton Dam being rebuilt; and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California came in at a whopping second place because of lousy water and flood management. No. 1? That would be the Upper Delaware in Pennsylvania, which is battling chemical-intensive natural gas extraction plans.

6) Pig effluent and fish kills
The largest North American river fish kill took place on the Neuse River in New Bern, N.C., where roughly a billion fish — many of them sporting open sores — washed up in fewer than five days in 1991. Some fishermen suffered memory loss from the toxin found in the river, which was later attributed to the enormous hog industry in the area. “When you store 20 million gallons of raw animal waste in a holding ground and let it cook in the hot summer sun of North Carolina and you don’t expect there to be consequences,” an observer offered, “you’d have to be crazy to believe that.” Back in the West, which doesn’t offer so much in the way of hog-farming-effluent one-upsmanship, the Klamath River suffered a hellish salmon kill in 2002, where more than 65,000 salmon died. Experts blame the event on irrigation and low river levels, and described a lost generation of fish because of the salmon that died before they spawned.

Tara Flanagan splits her time between Breckenridge and Boulder, where she works as an equine massage therapist.