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115 The Past and Future of the Columbia River Paul W. Hirt and Adam M. Sowards Introduction This volume uses uncertainty in environmental management as an organizing principle.We address this theme and several others, including the interconnection between natural systems and social systems, the centrality of historical context in shaping river management regimes and international agreements, the importance of humility in environmental management, and the value of balancing efficiency with equity in resource allocations.We unpack all of these themes in a historical survey of the changing human relationship with the Columbia River over the past century. Our analysis reveals trends in policy development, engineering, ethics, and international relations. Our own organizing principle is, simply, that studying the past illuminates the present and helps us chart an informed course into the future. History is instructive. At any given time in any given place, uncertainty is a prevailing factor. Nature presents itself as patterned disorder, whether it is climate fluctuations affecting biological production or salmon appearing in numbers higher or lower than anticipated or rivers overtopping their streams’ banks and spreading across the floodplain (Orsi 2004,165–83;Botkin 1990).But if natural systems are unpredictable, so too are human systems—perhaps to an even greater extent. Political systems are constantly evolving with policies adapting to address changing environmental conditions, failures in technocratic systems, or newly articulated social goals. Economies are uncertain based on shifting supply and demand, unpredictable prices,and interaction with other socio-political factors such as elections or income inequalities. Social values and behavior are often unpredictable, because they are pinned directly to people who are autonomous and act independently. Even more, these ecological and human systems interact interdependently, compounding the uncertainty in myriad ways. Nature, politics, economics, and society are all independently and interdependently uncertain (Langston 1995; McEvoy 1986). And yet, amid the unpredictability of natural and human systems historical patterns often prevail, and so historians can help chart the changing contexts in which this uncertainty interacts and is constrained.Today, the complex interaction of nature and nations shapes everything significant that happens on the river, from headwaters to estuary.We like to think that the good things we derive from 116 PaulW . Hirt & Adam M. Sowards the Columbia River are a product of order: a benign nature and technological competence. On the other hand, problems such as floods, fluctuating salmon runs, and pollution we often blame on serendipity and chaos: freak storms, human error, unanticipated consequences. But order and chaos are simultaneously present at all times, just as natural systems and social systems are inextricably intertwined at all times in this modern age.We can take no more credit for full reservoirs than we can blame nature for drought.To credit ourselves for the water in Lake Roosevelt is hubris, while to blame nature when our water supplies run low is naïve. It distorts both the interconnectedness of nature and culture and the historical contingency of events like floods or droughts (Orsi 2004, 173).As historian Ted Steinberg vividly elucidates in Acts of God, most of what we call “natural disasters” are emphatically unnatural events; they are as much a product of human design as environmental irregularities.The disaster associated with hurricane Katrina is only one of myriad examples of this (Steinberg 2000). Just as the flooding of New Orleans was a combined result of a “natural” event, a design flaw, and a policy failure, so too the great challenges facing Americans and Canadians in joint management of the Columbia River reflect the interdependent relationship between nature’s uncertain course and humankind’s shifting intentions, technologies, and policies. Our effort to wrest order from disorder falls in the realm of governance. The Columbia RiverTreaty (CRT) is an instrument of governance constructed at a particular place and time. It has weathered well, according to its administrators, but it is nevertheless also a dated document shaped by a generation now passing. The treaty culminated an era of profound technological optimism in humankind’s ability to control nature. Corporate and government-sponsored schemes for comprehensive river development transformed the region’s natural resources and political economy during the first half of the twentieth century setting the framework for the treaty.The CRT coordinated the two nations’efforts in a manner reflecting the prevailing political calculus of the times: to maximize hydropower and minimize floods on the Columbia River.Those goals,in hindsight,now appear surprisingly narrow—although few people were surprised or concerned about it in the 1950s...


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