By Lori Peelen
Reprinted with permission from her blog http://www.streamriffs.com
Hopeful is my default setting. It’s not a choice, actually, it’s just the way my brain works, even when it’s not in my best interest, even when the star I’m following is more likely the high-beam of an oncoming train. In my last moment I will for sure be scanning the sky for flickers of light, for silver linings and for guiding stars. The thing is, most of the time my faith in happy endings is rewarded with just that–happy endings, often enough, at least, to keep me looking for that star.
Lately though, Hopefulness has taken a beating, right here on my home turf. You see, I live beside a river gasping its last breath. Ironic that a woman obsessed with wild rivers has landed beside a nearly dead one. This is staggering to me. After years of talking to people in charge of water politics, I’ve tasted the sludge of Hopeless, which tastes exactly like it sounds. The Salinas River, with the largest watershed in California, is the most degraded watershed in the state.
It wasn’t always this way. Old-timers tell of gathering at the swimming hole in our town to cool off on summer days. I’ve seen photos of farm-boys with pitchforks, standing beside wheelbarrows piled high with steelhead they gaffed out of the river. For eons before that, Chumash and Salinan tribes lived along the Salinas River Banks. Life along the Salinas River was abundant, until the summer of 1942.
That’s when the Army Corp of Engineers decided to dam the Upper Salinas to quench the thirst of the city San Luis Obispo. So long, Summer Swimming Hole. Huge farms sprang up in the valley, lowering water levels further. So long, fish and beavers. Then vineyards joined the party, turning groundwater into wine. Hello, tourists. So long, every last drop of water. The Salinas River, along my stretch, today, is drier than a cornhusk in the wind.
The upper Salinas River (described by Portola’s crew in 1769 as: “a river watering a luxuriant plain”) is a now a dusty playground for ATV and motor cycle riders, with occasional horses trotting by. Each time I ask how this could happen, I’m met with shrugs. You can’t fight city hall. San Luis Obispo gets our water. It’s a done deal.
But this is actually a story about hope. It starts when I walked into a recent presentation on reviving steelhead in the Salinas River. Hah! Fish with no water? Now that’s something I had to hear. I signed my name as I went in, which registered me for the door prize. (Another Ha! I’ve never won a prize in my life.) I settled down to listen with a cynical heart.
A fish expert named Devin Best, relatively new to the Salinas River Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, began his pitch about bringing steelhead back to the Salinas River. This made me incredulous and a little bit mad. Will they come roaring back on motorcycles? But I listened carefully. In a nutshell, this man with a vision, and with experience up and down the west coast working with rivers and endangered species, told us why there is reason to hope: (I’ve paraphrased here)
Steelhead are remarkably tough. In spite of all that’s been done to eradicate them from the Salinas, the species has persisted in pockets of water.
Dozens of groups along the watershed are coordinating and collaborating their efforts to restore the Salinas.
Growers are hauling out the invasive reed, Arundo, which hijacked much of the watershed. The reeds displace native plants, offer zero nutritional value to wildlife and suck up way more than their share of water.
We just passed the “State Groundwater Management Act” enforcing sustainable aquifers. There will be less water sucked out of the ground, providing more for the river.
The National Marine Fishery Services is working with the Upper Salinas Management group on sustainability plans for steelhead in this region. Mr. Best concluded that he expects to see water and fish in the Upper Salinas River in the future.
The audience filed out. I hung around to ask him some questions. Then it happened. Amazing local artist, Helen Davie, (who had arranged the presentation,) came up to me and said, “Congratulations! You won the Door Prize!” She handed me a beautiful painting of a running river. To be fair, this door prize may have been a little rigged. Everyone except me was already out the door. And also– she knew me. Still, I was delighted beyond words. Further proof that even blind hopefulness has its rewards.
The painting is a night scene, a river spangled with reflected moon and starlight, titled “Riverbend, Milky Way.” It’s a block print, layered with coat after coat of paint, until it looks like it could flow right out of the frame, right into your home; like you could dip your hands into the cold, starry water and drink it.
And that is my hope. Because one day, before I leave this earth, I hope to see the Upper Salinas River flowing wild and free. I’ll be scanning the sky regularly for guiding stars. In the mean time, this painting hangs above my desk, reminding me that sometimes all we can do is follow the flickers of light leading through the dark, one hopeful step at a time.