An overcapacity crowd at the Cary Institute last Friday evening had the edifying pleasure of listening to Kurt Fausch, a leading stream ecologist, author and lecturer, discuss his book For the Love of Rivers (Oregon State University Press, 2015) and an award-winning documentary his work inspired, “RiverWeb.”
Tall, lanky, angular, Fausch looks like a slightly bent split-cane fishing rod, which fits: his lifelong study involves stream creatures and the riverine environment. He delivered his rather complicated but not entirely dismaying message in a soft-spoken Midwestern accent brightened with sporadic flashes of wit. He’s based in Boulder at Colorado State University, and the rivers, streams and watersheds he knows are those nearby, in the High Plains and the Pacific Northwest.
The news about the former is not particularly good. A recent study he and students conducted of the Republican River in Nebraska found that from high summer into fall, the riverbed in all but a few pools was dry. Since 1990 seven of 16 species in the river have disappeared. He projects that by 2045, they’ll all be gone. A major reason is readily apparent from the air: on either side of the river irrigation circles, each a quarter-mile across, interlock in an unbroken pattern. Twenty-five percent of the world’s corn is grown in the Great Plains, he pointed out, a sizable portion of that on dry land watered from the vast Ogallalla Aquifer. But the Ogallalla, which underlies parts of eight states from Texas to North Dakota, ceased being replenished by surface water more than half a century ago and lately the shrinkage has accelerated, dropping two percent from 2001 to 2009. (In fact, recharge is exceedingly slow, suggesting the groundwater is “paleo” – that is, from the last ice age or earlier.)
“This is what an aquatic biologist sees on a daily basis,” he said.
Elsewhere, Fausch is more sanguine. He’s pleased with the rehabilitation of the Salmon River in Oregon, and showed a gorgeous aerial photograph of a healthy green estuary through which a robust river curled toward the sea along the flank of a jagged coastal mountain.
At one point he segued smooth as a brook over stone into a disquisition about love, from a notion by Stephen Jay Gould that we humans will conserve only the parts of nature that have secured our affections. But there is more than one kind of love, despite the modern poverty of our emotions. The Greeks had eros, filia, storga, and agape. The latter, which amounts to deep moral and ethical responsibility, is what binds us to nature, Fausch thinks, and will urge us to preserve rather than destroy.
This requires a different understanding of the natural world than what has guided the human sprawl. Disturbance is natural and needed, for instance. Messiness can be fruitful. When trees are torn from their banks and shorn in a flood to end up littering a once-tidy river, leave a few. They provide shelter and habitat.
More than once Fausch quoted Aldo Leopold. His new book will surely evoke Sand County Almanac. He also has a connection to Norman Maclean, having studied the Big Blackfoot of A River Runs Through It. Here, from Maclean: “To Him, all good things—trout as well as salvation—come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.” In other words, how dare we?