A New Normal

SOJC strategist Spencer Orofino offers perspective on the concept of change — natural and man-made — and how we must frame resiliency. Eugene’s Delta Ponds and Willamette River may be an example of our role in environment, that of the new normal.

Nature is resilient. It doesn’t bow down to the limits of decades and centuries. Regardless of what humans do, time will wither away the society we built and nature will start from scratch.

Resilience may be nature’s greatest weapon but it is also our only hope. It’s a form of forgiveness that gives us a chance to reverse what has been done. The same brains and intuition that have created an unsustainable society can be used to find a form of coexistence. Though as individuals, we have to accept the reality that results may only appear after our time has passed.

We can see this resilience in our own Willamette River Valley and, specifically with the Delta Ponds in Eugene, Oregon.

Oregon’s agricultural boom in the mid 1800s caused a change in human perception of the river. People used it as a tool – a tool that could shape the valley’s landscape to the needs of a growing industrial society.

Once a braided river, the Willamette River has been reduced to a single channel. The damming and construction of levees in an effort to control water flow has destroyed natural habitats for many indigenous plants and animals. Young salmon and steelhead have lost the safety and food sources of side channels formed by flooding, critical habitat loss that’s resulted in a significant decrease in salmon and steelhead populations over the last one hundred years.

Salmon are an indicator species, meaning that their presence can be used to gauge a river’s health. Juvenile salmon are essential in bringing nutrients from the ocean deeper into the watersheds and river systems. Once hatched, salmon spend 1 to 3 years in the streams before making it back out to sea. There they live anywhere from 1 to 8 years, eating squid, shrimp and other smaller organisms. They then return to the river to spawn and die. Their carcasses return these nutrients to the surrounding ecosystem by way of the digestive tracts of pretators and scavengers.

The problem with dams and levees is that they destroy the side channels where young salmon grow strong. Side channel habitat is an important link in the salmon life cycle. When salmon can’t produce offspring that return to spawn, these river systems are deprived of the essential nutrients they need to flourish.

However, with modern housing and agriculture, river control is necessary to our way of life.

But the ability to live in a mutually beneficial manner isn’t impossible. In our own backyard, the Delta Ponds, 150 acres of previously barren land nestled between a local shopping mall and the Beltline highway has been converted into a refuge for the displaced species of the Willamette Valley.

Once a gravel mine, the two miles of side channels provide proof of nature’s resilience and ability to recover from human impact. The city began purchasing this land in 1979 after it had been essentially abandoned in the early 1960s and for about 20 years was largely unused. It wasn’t until 2004 that the construction of the Delta Ponds Project began and not until 2012 that it was completed. Within a few months, nature showed forgiveness in the form of an increase in the Chinook salmon population. More efforts such as the planting of 98,000 native plants brought native bird species back into the area though this took longer than the return of fish.

The Delta Ponds’ goal wasn’t to completely stop the way we live but rather to adjust it. It’s far-fetched to revert back to how our species survived hundreds of years ago, but it’s within reason to make efforts to repair and improve our relationship with the environment.

The Delta Ponds are an example of how small efforts can make impact. It’s not just nature that benefits: We do, too. Popular memory does not allow people to think back to the time where the river was truly healthy and would weave back and forth out of a main channel. The beauty of the Delta Ponds is that it allows us to peer both into the past and future. Walking along the banks, on one side you can look around and see the native wildlife flocking back into a habitat they can call home once again. On the other, you can see pieces of the society we built and now rely on. The Delta Ponds could be a start for us to figure out a new normal, a way we can all survive.