Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Importance of Having a Vision

For the past few years I've been providing technical expertise to assist in the development of new management plans for our region's rivers. In particular I've had an interest in rivers regulated for hydropower production. This is an important energy source for the region, but we now have a greater understanding of the impacts these dams have on river ecosystems. In many cases operations can be modified and have been on many rivers. There are however a few rivers where the impacts are so great and the necessary modifications are so expensive that it is more cost effective to simply remove the dam. Removal of Edwards Dam in Maine during the summer of 1999 was a critical milestone in our society's relationship to dams. We now understand that these structures really are temporary features on the landscape. While they may have provided societal benefits at one time, we now have the ability to take a much more critical look at balancing the benefits of dams against their environmental cost.

Condit Dam on the White Salmon is one of a 7 dams throughout the Pacific Northwest that has been scheduled for removal. Some would like to see the dam remain but the owner has determined that removing the dam will be more cost effective than bringing it up to modern environmental and safety standards given the limited production capacity of the hydropower project. While there are several permitting and engineering steps to removing a major dam, artist Daniel Dancer has also taught me that having a vision is one of the most important steps. Through a visioning process one can actually experience removal of the dam, making an abstract future event reality. Daniel develops community-based visions through Art for the Sky where individuals are pixels in giant living paintings. I think Daniel says it best:

You can make sense of things when you see them from the sky... If we can do that then we can see the impacts of our decisions before we put them into effect and we'll treat the whole world in a completely different way. And I think it's essential that we learn how to activate this way of seeing if we're going to solve the issues we face today on this planet. - Daniel Dancer, Art for the Sky

I recently went out to Pendleton to experience the removal of Condit Dam myself. Over 800 school kids were the pixels in a dynamic sky painting where the river broke through Condit Dam and the salmon made their way home. Daniel had a kayak for me that I used in experiencing the first descent through a section of river that has been drowned beneath a reservoir for nearly a century. It was an incredible experience--one that seemed chaotic from the ground but that all came together from above.

Chaos from the ground as school kids with blue t-shirts represent the pixels in the image of the river as viewed from above.

The river flowing through Condit Dam for the first time as salmon make their way upstream.

Salmon making their way upstream to habitat that has been blocked by the dam.

While we still have a lot of work to do to make the removal of this dam and others a reality, the work begins this summer with the removal of Marmot Dam on the Sandy River. What has become apparent is that having a vision is a critical step in realizing our goal of restoring rivers impacted by dams that no longer make sense.

Video Clips