23 May 2011


CHOMSKY ON BIN LADEN. Noam Chomsky, longtime linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and social activist, recently published a commentary on the U.S. military's assassination of Osama bin Laden. Readers will recall that in a previous post I wondered why we did not capture bin Laden, and bring him to trial for crimes against humanity at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Chomsky raised similar concerns, and in a followup commentary titled When Did America Completely Abandon the Rule of Law?, he elaborates on the issues at stake. International response to the raid from both developed and developing nations has been overwhelmingly critical, calling our actions a violation of international law. The decision to kill rather than capture runs counter to not only our own founding principles, but also to common sense. We are waging a war in Afghanistan that was never declared by Congress (a violation of our own Constitution), ostensibly a war against terrorism but also clearly a contest for favorable public opinion prior to next year's presidential election in the U.S. Doing so has cost us much credibilty among our allies, and has provoked even more anger and resentment in the Muslim world. Can we really afford such draconian measures, when a little restraint would have demonstrated our determination to remain on the moral high ground? Just asking.

SNOW AND FLOODING. From a NYTimes article written in Colorado -- "For all the attention on epic flooding in the Mississippi Valley, a quiet threat has been growing here in the West where winter snows have piled up on mountain ranges throughout the region. Thanks to a blizzard-filled winter and an unusually cold and wet spring, more than 90 measuring sites from Montana to New Mexico to California to Colorado have record snowpack totals on the ground for late May (see photo below of snowpack in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, click to enlarge) .... Those giant and spectacularly beautiful snowpacks will now melt under the hotter, sunnier skies of June -- mildly if weather conditions are just right, wildly and perhaps catastrophically if they are not. Fear of a sudden thaw, releasing millions of gallons of water through river channels and narrow canyons, has disaster experts on edge."

With good reason. For several weeks, print and broadcast media have been warning residents on both sides of the Rocky Mountains of the possibity of record flooding. The danger has escalated as more and more people move to the region. Here is an example of a warning posted this morning for Missoula, by the National Weather Service -- "Forecast: river levels will rise above flood stage sometime between late Monday night and Tuesday morning. River levels are forecast to rise between 10.0 feet and 12.0 feet throughout the week."

I'm reminded of a similar situation in the spring of 1964. Record winter snowfall, a cool spring, then sudden warming combined with rainfall, all led to precipitous snowmelt. So much snow melted so quickly that reservoirs contained by mountain dams overflowed. Three dams on the east face of the Rockies burst, releasing untold millions of gallons of water to flood the downstream watershed for many miles. The vegetation in mile-wide valleys was flattened, downstream farms and families were wiped out. The surging floodwaters carried trees, dead horses and cattle, and displaced beavers and other wildlife for days.

In a broader timeline, far-reaching questions are raised. For instance, might dams be part of the problem? My friend Lou in Tucson sent a link to an article documenting what ecologists have known for decades -- that impoundment dams may do more harm than good. The intended reasons for building dams -- flood control, generation of hydroelectricity, human recreation -- are overshadowed by the flooding of habitat upstream, and by the changes to habitat and native species downstream. Case in point: the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Historically, spring floods scoured out the river bed and side canyons, creating a unique habitat for reptiles, fish, and mammals found nowhere else on earth. But as "development" of the West accelerated during the 20th century, more people demanded regulation of the flood cycle using dams, which provided the added benefit of generating electricity for power-hungry cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. Among the dams build was Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966.

Prior to the dam's construction, the Colorado River's waters through the Grand Canyon had been relatively warm. But after those waters were dammed, downstream flow was regulated (allowing sandbars to accumulate which historically would have been scoured by seasonal flooding). That flow now originates from the much colder waters at the bottom of Lake Powell, the 300-kilometer long reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam. These changes altered living conditions for native plants, reptiles, birds and mammals downstream, making survival impossible for some, opening the way for invasive species. And upstream, human communities, archeological sites, and even massive sandstone arches like Rainbow Bridge have been threatened or buried beneath the reservoir.

Threats from human population growth and climate change require a wider assessment of the nation's river systems. On one hand are those who, like the Army Corps of Engineers, would restrict and govern and channel everything. On the other hand are those who, like environmentalist groups ranging from the National Parks Conservation Association to Earth First!, favor the complete removal or some or all dams which constrict the natural flow of water. By interfering with the cleansing effects of flooding, we wreak havoc with the replenishment of the Mississippi Delta, interfere with the spawning migrations of salmon on the west coast, destroy native habitats, and still do little more than postpone (and magnify) the inevitable. The planet managed to get along just fine without human interference in its cycles. Perhaps it's time we learned to live as part of nature, rather than trying to control nature. If you're foolish enough to build in a known floodplain, too bad. If you choose to live in the southeast, guess what -- you can expect a hurricane every now and then. I'm just sayin'.

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