Monday, December 05, 2005

FERC Academy I - Fluency

FERC Academy I - Fluency
Friday, December 2, 2005

The Yuba and Bear River watersheds are coming up for FERC relicensing. FERC is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which licenses non-federal hydropower projects. SYRCL, American Rivers and the Natural Heritage Institute have implemented the FERC Academy to educate the likes of me who love our river but have no clue what the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is and how it can affect rivers. I’ve missed the first two meetings so I still don’t really know much about the FERC.

When I signed up I was given a big binder with the handouts from the first two meetings. I had homework. Section one was a bunch of legal speak that explained what FERC does. I perused it and gleaned little insight into the subject since legal speak is a foreign language to most of us who are outside the legal world. I need a translator. The second section began with chapter sixteen of Jefferey E. Mount’s California Rivers and Streams – The Conflict Between Fluvial Process and Land Use, The Damming of California’s Rivers. I learned that 75 percent of California’s runoff is located north of Sacramento while 80 percent of the demand for that water is from south of Sacramento. This came as no surprise to me since the LA sprawl and San Francisco are both south of Sacramento. We have more than 1,200 nonfederal dams and 181 federal reservoirs that hold almost 60 percent of the annual runoff in California. More than 140 different aqueducts and canals relocate this water, 80 percent of which is consumed by agriculture. Urban residential use consumes a mere 10 percent. I also learned that almost half of the agricultural water is used for alfalfa, irrigated pasture, cotton and rice. These four uses represent only 10 percent of the total value of crops produced in the California. And not only that, but much of this water-guzzling agriculture takes place in arid climates. That seems like a big waste of water to me.

All of this was conveyed to me through a whole lot of numbers. In addition to not speaking legalese, I also don’t regularly converse in number talk. Numbers reduce things to such an abstract, practical form with no soul. I finished the article with a feeling that large amounts of water are being wasted on very insubstantial crops, all of the reservoirs we’ve constructed will eventually be rendered useless due to the disruption of sediment flows, and the riparian ecosystems are thrown completely out of whack due to our meddling, without any ability to grasp the scope of it. It’s depressing and heady and big. All of this information was communicated to me with science and numbers. This is the language that will be used to communicate with the legal faction who have the power to continue to alter the rivers, the language that is revered as the truth in our society. Where does this leave me who does not speak numbers, science or legalese?

Well, I’ve signed up to regularly attend meetings and field trips where I will be familiarized in all three languages regarding dams on the Yuba. It’s a start, but there was something that had to happen before I could ever conceive of attending those meetings in the first place. I needed a connection to rivers before being able to attain the stamina and desire to slog through languages reducing what I love to numbers, charts and graphs, and legal memos. I needed to be able to understand its language. I’ve been learning that through all the time I’ve spent in, on and around rivers. But what about other people who haven’t had much experience on rivers?

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in a suburb of Dallas, Texas – land of little water. The day I left an article in the Dallas Morning News caught my eye: ‘The Source: The Rio Grande exerts a powerful pull right from the start.’ Most of the socio-political issues associated with this river concern water rights, border violence and illegal immigration. But the purpose of the article was to highlight that there is something that goes way beyond the main news headlines concerning it. ‘And yet there has always been some other force I associate with the river, something I’ve never been able to name. Despite our best efforts, it seems to defy those of us who seek to unravel its mystery,’ writes Beatriz Terrazas, staff writer for the Dallas Morning News. She and photographer Erich Schlegel began a series of journeys in July along the 1,900 miles of river ‘in hopes of tapping into the mystery of the river’s call.’

This revelation is what people need to experience before the river is reduced to numbers and charts. This is the thing that needs to be remembered when the inevitable translation occurs. This is what is essential – the mystery, the soul, the spirit – whatever you want to call it, of the river. It is why I have spent years paddling rivers, countless hours alone in my studio painting the light and movement of rivers, and the reason why I endure ticks, poison oak and my destroyed knee to cover every inch of the South Yuba River I can with my camera in hand. This is why I am compelled to learn about the language of numbers and science that will be later translated into the legal language – a far disparate language from that of the river.

Beatriz’s article in the November 27th Lifestyles section was based on her trip to Creede, Colorado at the Continental Divide. Greg Coln, her guide, and his wife Delen have spent the past 20 years guiding on that stretch of the Rio Grande. They are intimately familiar with its character, changes and spirit. Delen describes her relationship to the river as, ‘…connected with our very blood flow, with the rhythm of our bodies and our minds.’ Greg explains, ‘It’s like somebody talking about their relationship with God or Jesus. It’s something you don’t know how to put into words. It’s just there. It’s real. And it’s a part of you.’

There is a reason that Greg says that trying to put his relationship with the river into words is as difficult as trying to explain a relationship with a higher power. It’s something that is beyond us. We can sense it, but it is not part of our lexicon to describe it. This, to me, signifies a problem. If it is not in our language, we, as a society have not yet begun to absorb it.

This morning I treated myself with indulging in lying in bed reading a book, At the Root of This Longing, by Carol Lee Flinders. On the page I left off, Flinders described the significance of the connection between the culture and rivers through an Indian story about Draupadi from the epic Mahabharata, ‘…and in the flow of her tears, her blood, her hair, and her garments are represented in the rivers of India, the land that’s said to be “river-mothered.” For Ganga, Jumna, Narmada, Sarasvati, and Kaveri are goddesses as well as rivers.’ In the Indian culture, the intangible relationships with our rivers has been incorporated directly into the spiritual vocabulary of the land. There is less of a language gap and therefore more of a natural acceptance and understanding of the important connection between people and rivers.

Beatriz sits on the bank and listens, ‘…the water murmurs in a way that mimics people’s talking. But I don’t know the language of this river… this river is a stranger I am just beginning to know.’ It’s because it is not the language we are taught in school. Nor is it the language that makes the political decisions. However, Beatriz, you are only partly on track. The water does not mimic people’s talking. Perhaps we instead mimic it. We need a paradigm shift in our thinking that removes ourselves as the center in which rivers and nature follow. We learn from the river, it does not learn from us. Be with the water longer, listen harder and you will begin to understand its language. This is the language we need to be fluent in before we can begin to translate it into the legal or scientific languages.