In celebration of World Rivers Day let’s ask, “What are our values?”

By Graeme Lee Rowlands, Program Coordinator of the Columbia River Field School
Photos by Bailey Repp
“I wonder[ed how they] could understand so little about my purpose, what I was born for: to find my way with great freedom and power to the sea.”
So says the Columbia River, personified, in Heart of a River — a storybook for all ages written by Eileen Delehanty Pearks and illustrated by Nichola Lytle.
Gathered in a circle at our campsite on the barren shore below the drawdown zone of the Arrow Lakes Reservoir, students of the Columbia River Field School passed this book around and took turns reading its story. Afterward, we asked them to consider what contribution a small book of art and poetry can make to conversations that are typically dominated by the “objective” and “rational” language of science and politics.
For me, the value of a work like this is its ability to make us start those conversations at the beginning — with a discussion of the foundational questions and values that inform our relation to rivers.
What is the purpose of a river? Do rivers have their own purposes? Are they really “born to find their way with great freedom and power to the sea”? Why or why not? If rivers do have purposes of their own, what obligation do we humans have to respect their wishes?
These are questions you are not likely to find in a scientific report or government resource management plan. However, I argue that they are important questions to ask because when we skip straight to debating the details of this proposal or that project the outcome is usually dictated by historic (and often unjust) allocations of power, rather than flowing from a principled consensus of everyone’s interests.
With this thought, I am reminded of the Columbia River Treaty meeting held in Spokane, Washington at the 2018 Summit of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. There, after listening to many optimistic statements from industries and constituencies who derive monetary value from the river, Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy stood up in traditional regalia and looked around the room (watch starting at 47:30). In no uncertain terms, he reminded those gathered of the desperation faced by salmon and the people who cultivated the Columbia’s original economy. Three times, he asked the room, “What do you value?”
Goudy explained that a responsible discussion about the river’s future must start with a “truth telling exercise” that illuminates the values, which guide each group’s actions, and includes an honest look at the state of the river in terms of its own needs.

On this 15th annual World Rivers Day (and 40th annual BC Rivers Day), with waterways, ecosystems, and human communities in every country in the world facing a dizzying array of threats, I hope and pray that we can learn to begin our conversations by sharing our values.
As Goudy suggested back in Spokane, I don’t think anyone’s values truly favor the looming extinction of Pacific salmon runs or the near-total loss of rivers as functioning arteries for healthy life in every corner of our small, blue planet. And yet, it can be reasonably argued with readily available evidence that, by what we are choosing to do and not do, we are making steady progress towards both of those tragic realities. With some clear-headed reflection, I suspect most of us would conclude that we must be losing sight of our values somewhere in the decision making process. What would it take to bridge this disconnect?

Here in the Columbia River Basin, Wildsight is working to inspire the next generation of conscientious river stewards. Since the Columbia River Field School (CRFS) launched in summer 2018, we have been bringing local youth to the Columbia and challenging them to learn from the river as they learn about themselves and to see the relationship between the two.
Field School students age 15-18 spend 14 days on and around the water, paddling across free flowing wetlands and tightly managed reservoirs, meeting with a diverse selection of 20+ guest speakers, and writing, painting, and discussing their observations. Students gain secondary school credit, certifications from the Recreational Canoe Association of BC, new friends, fond memories, and a strong connection to their home river. Upon completing the course, alumni are invited to participate in the ongoing CRFS community and are encouraged to take advantage of unique opportunities such as supported attendance of conferences and connections with local watershed leaders. Applications for CRFS 2020 will open in spring at
As students grow up and become decision makers—large and small—I dream that we as a society will make our choices like water. From headwater springs, values will flow downstream, connecting neighbors and relatives, each tributary finding the others and mixing into consensus where everyone’s contributions are represented, conflicts are reconciled, and needs are balanced. Together, our values will show us the way forward.
Wildsight would like to thank School District 8, the Columbia Basin Trust, the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), and the Columbia Power Corporation for supporting the CRFS.