Friday, April 1, 2005

I Want MY Wawa

Water. In Taoist philosophy, it represents a universal metaphor for the flow of life and the creative forces that we can't begin to comprehend. It is a substance without form; its shape is created by external forces. In many ways, it seems docile and tranquil, yet anyone who has been caught in a flood or tsunami knows that water can be one of the most powerful forces on earth.

For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, we're going to be hearing about and discussing water (and the lack thereof) for the next several months. I'm certain this conversation will grow deafening as we enter the summer months. While it's only the beginning of Spring, the formative discussions about this crucial natural commodity already are becoming heated.

A front page article in yesterday's Statesman Journal highlights the growing anxiety of many. In "Low Water Worries Residents", people from the Santiam Canyon met with representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the condition -- both present AND future -- of Detroit Lake.

Of course, the central question on the minds of residents and business owners alike was Will the lake fill up?

It's easy to understand why this is such a pivotal question. Detroit Lake fuels the economy of Detroit and the surrounding communities. During the summer months in non-drought years, tourists flood the area to fish, camp, hike, swim, boat and take in the beautiful scenery. Those numbers will be greatly lessened if Detroit Lake resembles a mud puddle instead of a lake.

Yet, while I can certainly sympathize with Detroit area residents, their need for water is NOT the chief reason Detroit Lake exists. In truth, the chief motivation in the construction of almost all the lakes and reservoirs in the Willamette Valley region is "controlling runoff and providing flood control, irrigation, power generation, downstream navigation improvement, and recreation."

Please notice that of all the various purposes of Detroit Lake, recreation is listed last. It's not that recreation and the economic development it spurs is unimportant, but that care of the many ecosystems, assistance to agriculture and power generation are deemed to be more important.

And this pecking order has been in place for nearly 50 years!

The folks who came to meet with government officials didn't want to hear this. They want the pecking order changed so that recreation comes out on top of the heap. Unfortunately for them, such a change would be completely unrealistic.

I realize that, when a person's bottom line is threatened, it's often hard to see the forests for the trees. We each want to protect our investments and not lose any more ground than we have to. Yet, if these folks were able to lobby enough of the right people and were successful in getting the pecking order changed, it would create the potential for serious problems, not only for the ecosystem and people downstream but even the very folks demanding the change itself.

For example, if environmental concerns were thrust far down the list, the rich natural beauty surrounding Detroit Lake might decline over time. If this were to happen, fewer tourists might come to a filled lake because the environs weren't what they use to be. Business owners and residents would then find themselves in the same kind of financial pickle they are envisioning for this summer.

Another possibility is a sudden flood. If this area was hit with short-term torrential rains and Detroit Lake was full, the Corps would find they had much less control in channeling flood waters. Many area residents, who live above or below the lake, might find their homes flooded. The very same people now clamoring to fill the lake would likely be the same people complaining that the Corps did not have the foresight to carefully plan for such a potential problem.

In drought years, we all need to understand that water is precious. While we might certainly like to believe that OUR needs are paramount, the truth is that the needs of ALL must be balanced. Such a balancing act this year is going to hurt the pocketbooks of the folks who depend upon Detroit Lake for their livelihood.

That might sound callous to some, but that's the way it has to be. When we try to harness nature to benefit ourselves, nature has a way of reasserting who is the REAL boss.

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