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Cambridge University Press
Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River

Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River

by Matthew D Evenden, Evenden Matthew D
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Amid contemporary debates over large dam development and declines in fisheries, this book offers a case study of a river basin where development decisions did not ultimately dam the river, but rather conserved its salmon. Although the case is local, the implications of this environmental history of the Fraser River (British Columbia), and the attempts to dam it for power and defend it for salmon, are global. Matthew Evenden explores the transnational forces that affected the river, the changing knowledge and practices of science, and the role of environmental change in influencing environmental debate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521041034
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 10/18/2007
Series: Studies in Environment and History Series
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.67(d)

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Fish versus Power
Cambridge University Press
0521830990 - Fish versus Power - An Environmental History of the Fraser River - by Matthew D. Evenden


In the twentieth century, humans transformed the planet's rivers. On every continent, save Antarctica, they dammed, diverted, and depleted rivers. On local, regional, and continental levels, the pathways and uses of water changed, if not always in kind, then in intensity, location, and scale. Two ecologists, Mats Dynesius and Christer Nilsson, reported in the closing decade of the twentieth century that over three-quarters of the total water discharge of the 139 largest rivers in the Northern Hemisphere are "strongly or moderately affected by fragmentation of the river channels by dams and by water regulation resulting from reservoir operation, interbasin diversion, and irrigation. . . . These conditions indicate that many types of river ecosystems have been lost and that the populations of many riverine species have become highly fragmented."1

The aim was not to fragment but to create a new order. In emerging nation-states, in empires and colonies, in capitalist and communist societies, political elites applied new technologies of power to rivers and lakes. Dreams of a hydraulic order sought to correct past ills, to raise wealth, to impose control over nature and others. Floods would be stopped, rushing, wasting water would be harnessed with hydroelectric dams, and arid lands and reservoirs would be linked with irrigation systems. A new order of previously unimaginable scope was placed on rivers almost everywhere. Over the course of the twentieth century, humans increased their annual withdrawals from rivers and lakes ninefold.2 And still the search for order, on the Yangtze, on the Mekong, and on the Great Plains, continues.

Because so many dams have been built and so many rivers transformed, the historiography of water development has understandably focused on the factors driving development rather than on those constraining it. From the role of state systems and geopolitics to the importance of monumentalism and modernism in dam design, environmental historians have sought to understand the forces that have made dam development politically possible, economically feasible, and ideologically acceptable.3 Complementing a number of important studies focusing on fisheries, they have also catalogued a host of environmental consequences of river development, not only on fish, but also on changed flow regimes and on human settlements.4 Relatively few national and international studies have sought to resurrect and understand protest movements against dam development.5 In general, environmental historians of river development have emphasized the causes of development without questioning what the alternatives might have been or whether, in similar places at similar times, the outcomes were the same.

This book focuses on a river for which some of the choices made about how to impose order, to raise wealth, and to establish political power took different forms than those used elsewhere. The Fraser River, located in British Columbia, Canada, is the most productive salmon river in the world. In terms of annual discharge, it is the third largest river on the Pacific coast of North America, following the Columbia and the Yukon, and the third largest in Canada, after the Mackenzie and the St. Lawrence. Like many large North American rivers, the Fraser has inspired dreams of waterpower wealth and fisheries growth. Despite many attempts in the twentieth century, however, the main stem of the Fraser has never been dammed. The river has been fragmented, but far less than most. For students of the modern world and of the environment, the Fraser River provides an important counterpoint to other rivers in North America and beyond. Its many developmental similarities highlight its important differences. On the Fraser, fish have triumphed, not dams, and this study seeks to explain why.

The answer turns on the political economic and transnational forces that shaped the Fraser River in the twentieth century. Before 1945, developers dammed tributaries to assist resource extraction activities and to power urban growth. However, the limits of local markets and state intervention as well as the practical difficulties of dam development kept large dams off the Fraser. After 1945, power demand soared and flood control became a major goal of public policy. Diverse interests promoted the benefits of damming the river. In this high stage of postwar development pressure, a fisheries conservation coalition, born of a fishing industry alliance, Canada-U.S. cooperation in the international regulation of the salmon fishery, and the intervention of fisheries scientists critical of the effects of power development, held dams off the Fraser. Once Canada concluded an international treaty (1964) with the United States to dam the upper Columbia in coordination with American projects downstream, the British Columbia government proceeded with another major power project on the northern Peace River, which would meet domestic and export power demands for decades. As a result, the Fraser became insulated from development pressures. Former dam proposals could no longer be justified economically or politically. Development was delayed, then displaced to other rivers.

A second argument of this book is that the fish vs. power debate not only delayed and displaced development, but also produced various side effects on salmon, science, and society. Over the course of the twentieth century, debates about how to manage the river and the salmon bore consequences for salmon migration when landslides blocked the main stem, for salmon spawning grounds when developers dammed tributaries, and for salmon populations when restoration activities reclaimed areas for salmon rearing. Throughout the fish vs. power debate, scientists played an important role in analyzing potential development cases, providing expert advice, and studying the relevant problems. Scientific institutions were formed and strengthened in part to provide answers to the fish-power problem. The applied questions that scientists sought to answer directed their research along some avenues and not others. In the background to the development conflict lay basic questions about British Columbia's future. The fish vs. power debate broke and forged coalitions among different social groups, regional interests, industries, and state bureaucracies. Because the Fraser salmon fishery was international and because the development of the Fraser would affect other transboundary developments on the Columbia, the fish vs. power debate expanded into national and international politics, challenging and provoking older definitions of regionalism and regional self-interest. The debate over the river and its fish, in short, climbed the banks of the Fraser and affected and interacted with a range of problems and processes beyond.

"You cannot step twice in the same river," observed the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, "for other waters are continually flowing on."6 Writing a river's history, then, seems a peculiarly elusive project, chasing a flow that cannot be constrained. Yet rivers have served as both metaphors and subjects of history for thousands of years. In Canada, rivers became routes for an unfolding nation in an earlier historiography; today they appear more frequently in our writing as sites of pollution.7 Romantic highways have become sewers. In British Columbia, rivers flow through the contemporary environmental imagination. They carry salmon that are said to typify a region and its history. They connect people to a place and its past. Frequently British Columbians have tried to step into the same river twice, forgetting how the river has changed and, more frequently still, how they have changed with it.

Before 1900, when this book begins, modernizing forces of the world economy and the politics of colonization had already changed the river and its peoples. To gain a long-term perspective that helps to place the development conflicts of the twentieth century in context, it is well to describe some of the natural processes that have made this river and to reflect upon the forces that turned the Fraser into a resettlement corridor.

The Fraser River drains a large basin, 250,000 km2 (1 km2 = 0.3861 miles2), about a quarter of British Columbia, or slightly larger than the land area of the United Kingdom (see Map 1). Since 1952, when the Nechako River was partially diverted to the coast, the drainage area has practically decreased to about 233,000 km2.8 The Fraser originates in the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains near Mount Robson and curves in a long s-shaped southwestern arc toward the delta, 1375 km away. Over the seasonal cycle, the river's mean flow, measured near the river mouth, changes dramatically from 750 m3/s in the winter to 11,500 m3/s in the summer (1 m3 = 1.308 yd3).9 From mountainous slopes in the western Rockies, the river cuts deeply into interior plateaus and enters a wide valley near the delta. In its course, the river passes through several different ecological regions shaped by varying conditions of moisture and temperature: evergreen forests of pine, spruce, and fir on the western slopes of the Rockies, dry plateau and sagebrush country in some sections of the interior, and dense rain forests on the coast. Each of these areas provide rich and varied habitat for salmon. Five species of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus) spawn in the Fraser basin: chinook (O. tshawytscha), chum (O. keta), coho (O. kisutch), pink (O. gorbuscha), and sockeye (O. nerka).10 Pacific salmon are anadromous. They spend their early life in freshwater environments, usually food-rich lakes or small streams, migrate to the ocean for the bulk of their life history, and, in their final phase, return to their natal streams to spawn and die.11

Map 1. Fraser Basin and British Columbia.

The Fraser River entered the modern world system relatively late. Native peoples had lived along the river for millennia and developed complex social worlds around the primary resource of salmon. In the lower sections of the river, salmon and a diverse marine environment provided the foundations for some of the largest native populations in Canada before contact. Coastal contacts between native peoples and European explorers and traders occurred only in the late eighteenth century - more than 200 years later than similar encounters in Eastern Canada. Smallpox, spreading north and west from the Plains in 1782, preceded direct contact in many areas of the coast and Fraser River and had devastating consequences for native groups.12 Land-based contacts, driven by an expansive continental fur trade from the East, were not realized until the early nineteenth century when Simon Fraser descended the river that would later bear his name, mistaking it for the Columbia. Although the treacherous narrows of the Fraser Canyon ruled out the use of the river as a possible transportation corridor for the fur trade, fur-trade posts were established in the interior and near the delta. These early links connected peoples and environments of the Fraser Basin to a continental trade network and to the demands of international markets, but they did not displace native peoples, nor colonize them.

A gold rush up the Fraser River in 1858 changed all of this. In a matter of months, around 20,000 miners, mainly from California, but also from eastern North America and Asia, traveled up the river, staked claims, and developed placer mining sites. Numerous conflicts with native peoples along the river ensued. In the same year, the British created the colony of British Columbia to exert control. The Fraser Basin lay within the territory ceded by the United States to the British in the Treaty of Washington (1846). The British established a settlement system, built a wagon road along the river from Yale (the head of navigation) north to the Cariboo gold fields, surveyed town sites, and generally imposed a new system of law and order.13 Missionaries of several denominations seeking cultural and religious change followed. As part of this resettlement process, in the second half of the nineteenth century native peoples were confined to margins of their traditional territories on reserves; unlike in many other parts of Canada, here no treaties were signed.14 In a very short period of time, the river had been colonized, connected to a global empire, and exploited for a high-value, low-bulk commodity export.

The Fraser River, nevertheless, remained on the margins. Although small resource industries of lumbering, fishing, agriculture, and mining developed slowly, particularly in the lower sections of the river, the lack of substantial local markets and the prohibitive costs of transportion to larger centers limited opportunities. It was not until the late nineteenth century, after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a transcontinental railroad, that the barriers of distance began to diminish. From the east, the railroad followed the Thompson River, a Fraser tributary. At the confluence of the Thompson and the Fraser at Lytton, the railroad cut south, following the Fraser to the coast, before terminating north of the delta, on Burrard Inlet. At its terminus, finally reached in 1887, the railroad provided the economic foundations for a new city, Vancouver. At the coast, the railroad connected with steamships. Along its tracks, telegraph lines carried information. Over the years, a series of spur lines ran up tributary valleys that bisected the main line. In the early twentieth century, a second transcontinental line followed the river. The railroad, however, did not move the Fraser River from the margins to the center. Beyond rail lines, travel and shipment in the Fraser Basin remained difficult. But the railroad did connect the region to a new East-West axis across northern North America that promised considerable political and economic change.

The construction of the railroad had been a fundamental condition of British Columbia's entrance into Canadian Confederation in 1871. Before that time, the mainland colony had been united with Vancouver Island in 1866. By entering Confederation, British Columbia became subject to the constitution of a complex federal state. By the terms of the British North America Act, 1867, provinces and the federal government gained different responsibilities and powers.15 Section 109 of the Act granted provinces jurisdiction over lands and resources, and Sections 92(5) and 92(13) granted the right to manage and sell public lands and to hold jurisdiction over property and civil rights. The federal government, however, retained jurisdiction over ocean-based and anadromous fisheries, navigable and international rivers, and significant powers related to natural resources under Section 91, particularly as these related to trade and commerce, taxation policy, and, most broadly, "Peace, Order and good Government." Further, a railway belt, set aside to help finance the transcontinental railroad, remained under federal authority. The belt extended 20 miles on either side of the main line and therefore encompassed a wide section of the Fraser Basin. Administration of the railway belt remained contested for many years.16 These divisions of authority produced various conflicts within the state system over the administration and regulation of shared or contested resources - conflicts that private interests happily exploited.17

The railroad provided relatively cheap, reliable transport that underwrote a new era of resource development in the Fraser Basin. The primary exports from the basin were forest products and fish. Lumbering centered on the lower river and its environs, whereas fishing occurred near the delta and focused primarily on sockeye salmon. Agricultural commodities wrested from the rich soils of the Fraser Valley reached local markets in resource towns and the expanding commercial center of Vancouver. Before the turn of the century, cattle-ranching operations moved into sections of the middle basin, along the Thompson River. Rapidly, the railroad opened new resource development opportunities in the Fraser Basin and made it into an export-oriented, staple-producing region.

At the edge of the transcontinental railroad system, Vancouver emerged as the primary Pacific metropolis of Canada, organizing the provincial resource trades and providing transportation services for a vast hinterland. Within the city, lumber mills cut timber from logs floated by river and sea and prepared them for shipment by rail and barge. To the south, on the river, an increasing number of canneries produced an expanding pack of sockeye salmon. Cases of tinned fish were moved by rail to consumers in the east and abroad. Although manufacturing remained limited in the city before 1900, the city grew rapidly. Vancouver's population more than doubled from a modest 13,709 in 1891 to almost 30,000 by the turn of the century. In the next decade, the city's population quadrupled. By 1931, the city and surrounding municipalities reached nearly a quarter of a million; by 1951, over half a million - or nearly one-half of the entire provincial population.18 A city of this size and regional importance provided a considerable market for the resource economy of the province and also developed a substantial service industry and manufacturing base.

Fish versus Power is an environmental history of a contested river. To understand that contest, I build upon and seek connections among three bodies of scholarship.

First, any study of primary resource development in Canada must come to terms with the staples tradition of Canadian political economy. This tradition can be traced to the foundational economic histories of Harold Innis on Canada's early export trades of fur, cod, and minerals. Innis analyzed the "penetrative powers of the price system" across a vast northern realm and worked out the effects of staple commodity exploitation on economic and social relationships in hinterland regions.19 He approached these problems with the assumption that economic activity was linked to and embedded in environmental and spatial contexts. Although Innis's work has been widely praised and remains important, those who have sought to emulate his approach and concerns have done so in broadly different ways. In one direction, political economists have largely abandoned an historical approach, but have given greater theoretical precision to Innis's ideas and emphasized the inherent difficulties of industrialization in a staple-driven peripheral economy.20 In Canadian historical writing, the staples approach has received scattered treatment in the past half century; the most notable reinvigoration has appeared in the work of H. V. Nelles, who connected comparative studies of staple trades to analyses of the state and regulation.21 In historical geography, the staples tradition attracted considerable interest in the 1970s and 1980s and emphasized the settlement patterns associated with staple trades, as well as the environmental contexts and effects of commodity exploitation.22 My own approach analyzes the connections between what Nelles has called the "politics of development" in a federal state and the environmental histories of contested resources.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

List of tables, figures, photographs and maps; List of abbreviations; Acknowledgements; Introduction; 1. 'A rock of disappointment'; 2. Damming the tributaries; 3. Remaking hells gate; 4. Pent-up energy; 5. The power of aluminium; 6. Fish versus power; 7. The politics of science; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.

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