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River Talk — Columbia River Treaty exhibit coming to Touchstones

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes has been researching and writing about the history and politics of water in the upper Columbia Basin since 2005. 

Her book on the Columbia River Treaty, A River Captured, is forthcoming in 2016.  Recently, her travelling exhibit on the Columbia River Treaty, curated for Touchstones Nelson, won a national award from the Canadian Museum Association.

Pearkes has agreed to help The Nelson Daily readers understand the importance of the Columbia River Treaty to the region with another edition of River Talk.

Today Pearkes writes about the upcoming Columbia River Treaty exhibit opening coming to Touchstones November 27.

A young man I know recently told me he had bought stock in Tesla Motors, the company making great strides in developing electric vehicles.  He didn’t buy stock for the cars, though.  He bought it for the company’s work on home batteries. 

Every car has a battery.  They’ve always been clunky, heavy old things that ooze mysterious fluid and need a jump-start if you leave your lights on.  Batteries are an important way of storing electricity. Tesla’s cars run without gasoline, so they need batteries that store a lot of power, yet are not too cumbersome.  As Tesla improves the capacity of car batteries, power storage technology moves to new levels as a result.

This all connects to water, to dams and the Columbia River Treaty (CRT).

Storage dams are really just giant batteries. Engineers design walls made of concrete or glacial silt that are strong enough to hold back a lot of water.  Spanning rock canyons or gorges, they store water that can then come out slowly through generators to produce electricity reliably, when we want and need it. 

The CRT authorized the construction of four of these storage reservoirs in our region, giving us the honour of living in one of the largest landscape batteries in the world. 

The problem is that as batteries go, dams are really not very sophisticated in concept.  Though they are construction marvels, they extract a very high ecological price. 

The natural systems of the Duncan, Kootenay and Columbia rivers have been nearly destroyed.  Fish populations that were once abundant have plummeted. Wetlands disappeared. Agricultural land was lost. It’s not a pretty story.

The work being done at Tesla demonstrates how far we have come since the construction of these dams 50 years ago.  And we have further to go.  Tesla is also developing technology that could provide a personal, solar-powered battery in each home, powerful enough to provide much or all of the electricity that home might need.   

They are investigating solar farms, too, as is Kimberley, B.C., with Sun Mine, the largest of its kind in the province.

It’s a pretty exciting time.

If one spends a decade studying and writing about Columbia River history as I have, one faces at some point a creeping desire to see all the dams removed and rivers restored to their natural flow. 

 I have battled this impulse for years, calling it impractical, illogical and impossible.  It makes no sense to take them down. We need them for “renewable” electricity and flood control. They have become part of us and how we live in the region.

But what if things change enough in the energy industry that it starts to make sense?  Call it back to the future.  Back through history - to a new-old way.

My work on the history of the region’s water industry has pulled me into many interesting projects, including the most recent as guest-curator for an exhibit on Columbia River Treaty history, opening Nov. 27-28 at Touchstones Nelson. 

This exhibit witnesses the social, cultural and ecological losses experienced as a result of “battery construction.”  It also gives viewers a chance to understand more about how our natural ecology once functioned, and to contemplate the value of water.

Friday evening Nov. 27 will include a launch of a new edition of my poetic tribute to the Columbia, The Heart of a River

Based on a story I told at the Procter Storytelling Festival about a decade ago, this edition is richly illustrated by Nichola Lytle of Pink Dog Designs. 

On Saturday at 1 p.m., I’ll be giving a talk called “Is the Columbia River Treaty Sustainable?” 

It will be my privilege to welcome a few specially-invited guests on Saturday, those whose memories of a free-running Columbia live on. 

Join me at either event in celebration of water and our history.  

Story originated at The Nelson Daily.