The quest stood upon the edge of a fillet knife. My feet cried out concerning my madness and folly—ten miles of hiking, one wader leg filled with Cowhee Creek, used boots overly snug, blisters inevitable. I had probed and prodded every bit of frog water I could find on this beautiful Alaskan creek. No sign of silver salmon.
It began in February as an idle comment over church coffee in the fellowship hall in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “I’m turning forty this fall,” I said to my friend Chris. He wore his characteristic Sunday wool vest, his bald head gleaming in the pale fluorescent light, a passel of his plenteous offspring darting about him. “I’ll be on sabbatical too,” I said. “I’m thinking of going to Montana for a fishing trip—maybe hiring a guide. I’ve never hired a guide.” Stricken, his face took on a stunned expression. He looked back at me with deadly serious eyes. His tone left no room for debate: “Dude—we should go to Alaska. I’ll be your guide”
What followed was months of texts, conversations at church, internet research, coffee shop meetups, breakfasts cooked atop a woodstove in his hand-built woodshop. It took on a life of its own, and before I knew it, seven men (friends and friends of friends—one of them, oddly enough, my dentist) descended into Juneau seeking satisfaction via salmon.
We had been warned—the coho run was weak this year, exceptionally weak. Chris and I woke early that first Sunday and hiked to the falls, our morning worship service consisting of fishing a wide, dark, turbulent hole just beneath. Our only trophy was a photo of a brown bear claw print taken from beside a pool just above the falls, Chris’s hand beside it, dwarfed for scale. That and some thorns from the notorious devil’s club, ubiquitous to off-trail hiking in that region. (I still have one on the tip of my index finger, typing here, nearly a month later—nature’s own fishhook.) All day I did everything in my power to find salmon, refusing to leave the water, even to have a meal.
But for all my striving, for all my casual verbal probing of other fishermen on the creek, for all my desire, there was nothing but blisters, until—
Three young strangers pulled six bright silvers from the river in the span of one hour.
I witnessed all of it. I watched their thrill, heard their whoops, felt their joy overflowing and spilling back into the creek. As luck would have it, they had limited out and were leaving. I could have their hole. The quest would have a happy ending, and it was imminent.
The spot was none other than the one beside the brown bear print we had seen that morning. Just above the falls. A slow, swirling eddy, off to the side, cut off from the main current by alders and boulders. Even better—a long, rocky bar led up to it from upstream, providing the perfect spot to fish it. I should have trusted the bear; he knew where to find the fish.
A hundred casts later with fly rod and spin, I had zero fish to show for it. But the next morning I was the first in that hole as day broke, and I was rewarded—I caught the first salmon of my life, a modest coho on a pink Pixee. I thought I had achieved peak fishing glory. The next day I endeavoured to catch one with my fly rod. Same hole, and indeed I caught one on a Clouser Minnow. Even more glorious than the first.
As if the rule of threes was woven within the threads of reality itself, the next fish I hooked surely changed me. She took the pink Clouser like the one before, but she was in no mood to see me. Each time I worked her to within sight, she shot off toward the falls like an arrow, forcing me to use every ounce of fishermanly experience I had to judge when to pull her back, and how hard. If she reached the falls, she would surely be lost. Lost in a vortex of time and space, I couldn’t judge accurately how much time elapsed but for the time stamp on the photo of the previous fish. Likely twenty-five minutes we were linked.
When it was over and she lay on the rocky bar, I knelt beside her, my eyes filled with tears, and I prayed, thanking God for the beauty I had just experienced.
The fisher is at the mercy of the river, hoping for a gift that may or may not come. “Any person waist deep in a misty green river,” says David James Duncan, “casting for salmon, is in a position of prayerfulness. He or she is hoping to defy the odds, hook a Genesis gift, beach it, bless it, and bring it home to wow and feed the friends and family. Such a person is an indigenous being of an ancient sort, a being known as a fisher.”
Hooking, beaching, and blessing that coho salmon hen was my peak fishing experience to date. There exists a spiritual mystery beyond language’s capacity to describe the act of fishing—and all fishers know it. Often it is this, and not the fish, that they are really fishing for. It is something deeper, something that speaks of an intimacy with creation and, by extension, its Creator. The connection to the primordial, the tactile experience of beauty, the blessing and the gift—it seems all so deeply necessary right now. It doesn’t matter if they are folks I only barely know, my own children, or my children’s children; I would be blessed and delighted if human beings could catch and be caught by salmon in perpetuity until the Lord comes again.
Sadly, that prospect is in doubt.
Consider for a moment why a bunch of “dudes” from Oregon, living as we do within an hour’s drive of the Columbia River, flew to Alaska to fish for salmon, and you will begin to recognize the plight of salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
The Columbia River was once one of the most productive salmon rivers in the world, with runs numbering in the ten to fifteen million fish per year. Current runs are less than 2 percent of that. Over one hundred salmon and steelhead runs within the Columbia River basin have gone extinct. Today, thirteen runs of salmon and steelhead are either threatened or endangered in the basin.
The list of ways in which people are responsible for this ecological disaster is long: pollution, non-native and invasive species, water withdrawals, climate change, overfishing, logging, hatchery practices. Lest we get lost in the morass of multiple stressors, let’s focus on perhaps the most egregious: dams.
Salmon begin life as an egg laid and fertilized in the frigid headwaters of rivers and streams. Juvenile salmon live in these waters for a few months to a few years until they are large enough, then they allow themselves to be swept downriver toward the ocean. On the journey, if they encounter dams and reservoirs, two problems arise. First, the reservoir is slower moving and warmer than the river and can require the smolts to swim long distances, expending energy in warm water they naturally wouldn’t have had to expend. Second, the fish may enter the outlet works of the dam and their lethal power-generating turbines. If the fish manage to survive, they may make it to the ocean, where they will grow for several years, attempting to avoid predators such as seals and orcas, but providing food for them when they do not. After three to four years something tells them it is time to return home, and they return to their natal river system. They must swim up fish-passage systems built into the same dams they passed on the way down. If they finally reach spawning grounds, females lay their eggs, males fertilize them, and they protect their nest until death takes them. Their journey is always terminal, but in their death they provide food for not only their young but also over eighty other species. In total, salmon directly benefit not only us but over 130 wildlife species while also fertilizing the forests with sea-derived nitrogen and phosphorus.
In 1939 Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River was raised high enough to prevent salmon passage upstream to their spawning grounds, instantly eliminating all salmon runs that depended on the upper Columbia River and tributaries for spawning. It remains the largest power station in the United States, too high to permit fish passage of any kind. With its completion, all salmon that swim up the Columbia bound for the upper watershed now must depend on the Snake River, which enters the Columbia downstream of Grand Coulee, to spawn. There are eight dams in total that salmon must traverse to reach spawning grounds in the Snake River system, and likewise that juveniles on their journey to the sea must also traverse. Four of these are on the Columbia, and four on the Snake. But these dams are not all created equal—for decades it has been known that mortality through the Snake River dams is significantly higher than through the Columbia dams, particularly for out-migrating juveniles. The cumulative result of all these dams and reservoirs is that not enough salmon are successfully returning to spawn. Between outmigration, ocean conditions, the journey back, and degraded spawning habitat, mortality is just too high to perpetuate the population. The lower Snake River dams provide energy, irrigation, and navigation. But the energy they provide is less than 4 percent of the region’s needs (and less than half of what is provided by the Columbia River dams), the irrigation they provide could be provided by the river itself without the dams, and the navigation they allow is for the barging of wheat from the Port of Lewiston (a port that lies more than 450 river miles inland) at a marginally lower cost than transporting it by truck or rail.
It was hoped that adaptive management and fish passage improvements at the dams would lead to recovery. That has not happened. A dismal prognosis emerges from the most recent reports.
Numerous studies and reports over the past thirty years have been issued concerning salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers and the potential benefits to salmon of removing the lower Snake River dams. Many if not most of the predictions of declines anticipated in the early studies about the ongoing effects of the dams have come to pass (for example, a report that led to Endangered Species Act listings in 1991; or the results of the scientific collaborative PATH process, as summarized in an appendix to the 2002 Environmental Impact Statement). It was hoped that adaptive management and fish passage improvements at the dams would lead to recovery. That has not happened. A dismal prognosis emerges from the most recent reports. The latest proposal, the Columbia Basin Initiative, estimates the cost of removing the dams to be about $33 billion (a mere $1.4 billion of which is the actual breaching and removal; most of the cost would go toward replacing the electricity-generating capacity, and much of the rest toward compensating other stakeholders for losses). The cost of the removal is $6 to $22 billion more than the cost of maintaining them. However, over $17 billion has been spent already to address fish recovery over the past decades to little avail. Meanwhile, the Endangered Species Act and treaties made with native peoples continue to be violated, leading to perpetual lawsuits with no end in sight.
The cost of removing the dams is high. The cost of not removing the dams? Likely, what remains of salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
When you tell someone you are a civil engineer, you tend to get one of two responses: eyes glazing over or a subtle nod plus “Is that, like, bridges and dams?” For better or worse, dams are the archetypical symbol of the civil engineer. In the United States there are over ninety thousand of them. Like fossil fuels, they have transformed economies, transformed landscapes, and converted abundant natural resources into vast wealth. To speak against them seems like sacrilege for the civil engineer. But just because civil engineers design dams does not mean that every dam is an example of “good” engineering—though, to be clear, some are, and in fact, even given strict constraints on where and how dams could be constructed, there are still many opportunities around the globe to build dams that will not drive species to extinction.
In his book Thinking Like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession, philosophy professor Michael Davis defines engineering as “the practical study of how to make people and things work together better.” When the lower Snake River dams were constructed, engineers surely thought that they were making people and things work together better. But the very fact that we, as engineers and as a society, are considering taking them down implies that either we messed up and are considering owning up to that, our values have changed, or the circumstances have changed. Reality is a complex mixture of the three.
Engineers are typically very good at achieving Davis’s definition, but we often make two errors in its interpretation. First, we falsely divide all of creation into “people” and “things,” which in itself has two issues. For one, in this duality, where do animals fit? Article 285 of the Austrian Civil Code states that “animals are not things,” and we nod at the logic of this as we pet our dogs. For another, dividing creation this way amplifies the distinction between people and the rest of creation. It is true that we are set apart from the rest of creation (that is, “things”), but we are also part of it. By highlighting the distinction, we belittle the membership. In his book The Ethos of the Cosmos, author and Old Testament professor William Brown gives this insight: “Human beings are set apart from creation not because they are something other than creation but because they have a unique role to play within creation.” In other words, the distinction between human and non-human creation has an important ethical dimension, not only (or even primarily) an ontological one. For the engineer, this then means asking how people and things ought to work together, not just seeking to improve the status quo.
The second issue engineers encounter in enacting Davis’s definition is that we misunderstand “better.” How we evaluate what is better and what is worse requires judgment, which implies either some ethical framework or some economy that values one thing against another. In his essay Two Economies, Wendell Berry lays out principles of the Kingdom of God, a truly comprehensive economy that includes and accounts for everything, all that we humans can and cannot value: our dependencies, intangibles, the health and well-being of all organisms and all systems that support them. In this economy everything is joined “both to it and to everything else that is in it,” and humans can never know the whole pattern or order by which the creatures of this economy are contained. He calls this the Great Economy and contrasts it with our “little economy.” Our little economy is what we usually operate under, that which weighs the financial benefits of barging wheat and selling power against the supermarket value of fillets of salmon whose millennia-old runs we are driving to extinction. Despite our sinfulness, our finitude, our short-sightedness, biases, and greed, we presume that our little economy can adequately and justly value all that we encounter.
The dam-building boom in the United States peaked in the 1960s when the lower Snake River dams were constructed. This period was characterized by a zeitgeist of domination, emblemized by the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the space race. It was just prior to the spate of environmental laws that were passed in the early 1970s, including the Endangered Species Act. There is no question that the frenzy of dam building, like many other events of that era, was based on the little economy. The lower Snake River dams did not just doom salmon and steelhead runs to perpetual decline; they also inundated tens of thousands of acres where the ancestors of tribal peoples were buried and where these peoples were accustomed to live, fish, hunt, gather, and worship.
As flawed and broken as human economics and our valuations were and are, our engineering of salmon may be worse. We thought, since we could use technology to dominate the river via dams, we could do the same to dominate the biotic reality of salmon themselves. Hatcheries, an engineering invention, were supposed to solve the salmon problem brought about by dams. They have morphed from an attempt to increase natural salmon abundance, to an attempt to restore salmon runs to their previous abundance, to an attempt simply to stop the decline of salmon runs. They have failed. Not only do hatchery fish make a poor substitute for wild ones (in both fitness and nutrition value to humans and predators), but the hatcheries themselves are failing even to sustain stocks of hatchery fish. Further, by their functioning they are imperiling the remaining wild stocks by mixing weak hatchery genetics into resilient wild genetics. The dependency on funding for maintenance and improvements means even what meager success they may have is subject to the next recession or political whims.
As flawed and broken as human economics and our valuations were and are, our engineering of salmon may be worse.
The designs of human engineers are derivative, secondary, fallen. We can’t compete with the Great Engineer when it comes to engineering ecology; the complexity of the dependencies present in creation are beyond human comprehension. In Round River, pioneer of ecology Aldo Leopold said, “No efficiency engineer could blueprint the biotic organization of a single acre.”
How can we engineers fit our economy and our engineering into the Great Economy? How can we align our motives and our work with the Kingdom of God?
“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’” (John 3:3–5). Can an entire profession be born again?
“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:5). There are reasons to be optimistic.
According to data from American Rivers and the National Inventory of Dams, around 2017 the annual number of dams removed in the United States began to exceed the number of new dams completed. For context, in 1999, when I had my first inklings of wanting to become an environmental engineer and the Edwards Dam removal on Maine’s Kennebec River was ordered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (considered by many to be a watershed moment in the dam removal movement), 502 dams were completed and 23 removed. In 2019, 26 were completed and 102 removed.
The removal of two dams on Washington’s Elwha River in 2012 and 2014 were the largest dam removals in US history. Since then the ecosystems in these areas have flourished and salmon have returned. In November 2022 the final regulatory approval was granted for the removal of four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California. Removal began in March 2023, and when the work is complete, it will be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in history—not just in the United States but in the world. In both of these cases, the restoration of native people’s access to healthy salmon populations has played a central role.
The Columbia Basin Initiative, that latest proposal to remove the lower Snake River dams, was designed and is being championed by US Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a Republican. The coalition working on this issue includes not just environmentalists but a broad range of stakeholders, including those in agriculture, energy, recreation, transportation, and tribal interests. The effort represents a recognition that our best efforts at engineering a workaround for over two decades have failed at great expense, both in dollars and in ecosystem health.
Values in society are shifting. Where once the domination ethic ran rampant, renewed concern for the intrinsic value of the green, given earth is breaking in. Likewise, a concern for native peoples, whose lands we inhabit and to whom our promises have been broken, may also be renewing.
While technology may not have given us the ability to allow the lower Snake River dams to coexist with a healthy, sustainable population of salmon and steelhead, it has opened the door for sustainable replacement of the energy loss associated with their removal. Studies have differed on the estimated costs and feasibility of complete carbon-free replacement (for example, a 2018 study by the Northwest Energy Coalition is more optimistic than a 2022 one commissioned by the Bonneville Power Administration, which currently markets power generated by the dams), but they agree that existing technologies and resources like wind, solar, utility-scale batteries, geothermal, energy efficiency, demand response, and pump storage will play a role. Depending on future regulations and availability of federal funding, natural-gas generation or emerging technologies like hydrogen or small advanced nuclear reactors may also be utilized.
Of course, civil engineers are as necessary to the dam removal process as they were in the construction. A new generation of civil engineers will grow up with a new perspective—one that is interested less in “progress” than in welfare. Even if the priority of the civil engineer will always be human welfare, we as a profession are in the dawn of recognizing that creation care is human care and that the welfare of the environment is human welfare. This doesn’t detract from our mission; it has always been an essential truth that we have not always recognized.
The definition of engineering as “the practical study of how to make people and things work together better” dovetails perfectly into a theological understanding of our calling as humans. For what were we created? “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). This is the unique role that people have to play within creation. Cultivating implies making things better. John Mark Comer says it is “to partner with God in pushing and pulling the creation project forward, to work it, to draw out the earth’s potential and unleash it for human flourishing—to cooperate with God in building a civilization where his people can thrive in his presence.” The creation started as a garden in Genesis, but in Revelation the new creation is not simply a garden but, transformed by cultivation, an eternal city.
The trajectory of garden to city in the biblical narrative is particularly salient in the work of the civil engineer. Because we can so tangibly cultivate the garden, drawing out its potential by bringing order out of disorder, it is not difficult to place the vocation of the civil engineer within the vocation of humankind. With every intersection redesign, every drainage facility, every structure, Christian civil engineers believe that God can somehow preserve this work to persist in that Holy City. Indeed, Revelation says that “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.” In Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, Miroslav Volf says, “The noble products of human ingenuity, ‘whatever is beautiful, true and good in human cultures,’ will be cleansed from impurity, perfected, and transfigured to become a part of God’s new creation.”
Because we can so tangibly cultivate the garden, drawing out its potential by bringing order out of disorder, it is not difficult to place the vocation of the civil engineer within the vocation of humankind.
But only insofar as it is fitting: any work that contradicts the moral order has no place in the new creation, and this imbues our work with moral responsibility. This means that if a dam is responsible for salmon not flourishing, not fulfilling what God made them to be, then we are not lifting salmon up to Christ, and we prevent them from bringing a full measure of glory to the Creator.
It is tempting in these settings to lean on the language of trade-offs—to rest in our little economy to justify vice as virtue. But, as Berry says, “the human economy, if it is to be a good economy, must fit harmoniously within and must correspond to the Great Economy; in certain important ways, it must be an analogue of the Great Economy.” The only way to achieve this is to deal, not in trade-offs, but instead in the familiar engineering language of constraints. Any technology that diminishes (or, as in extinction’s case, eliminates) the dignity of human or non-human creation does not belong in the new creation. This should serve as a constraint on our technology, forcing us to grapple with the true costs of our actions.
Does this mean dooming us to a life of poverty? Certainly not. Constraints breed creativity. Dams have not created wealth; they have transformed the wealth of the earth into human measures of wealth. To claim, then, that without a select few of them we would be poor bespeaks the poverty of our imagination.
This is not to write off the hard reality of trade-offs, or costs, as they might better be termed. These costs are inherent in our little economy, and, as Berry says, there is “no denying our need for a little economy—a narrow circle within which things are manageable by the use of our wits.” But Jesus said to “seek first the kingdom of God.” What does this mean?
We need to see these costs not as the governing principle in decision-making, for this is to put the little economy first, but as the inherent consequence of taking action in a fallen world. Grappling with the true costs of our actions means striving to avoid, minimize, or transform them. Doing so requires the difficult and complex work of biologists, engineers, economists, and government officials—the labour of analysis, design, optimization, and consensus building. By these we “cultivate and keep” the garden.
To seek first the Kingdom of God, we need to see the flourishing of all things as our governing principle, since within the Great Economy lies every single thing. In Salmon Without Rivers, Jim Lichatowich says, “Environmental debates that result from differing values often devolve into choices between economic and ecological values, between short-term economic needs and long-term obligations to future generations. There can be no satisfactory outcome to debates that pit humans against the ecosystems they must live in, or that set this generation against future generations. In the long run, everyone will lose.” To put it keenly: salmon cannot flourish when the obstacles we put before them exceed their genetic capabilities. Humans, on the other hand, endowed by the Creator with abounding imagination and ingenuity, can flourish without the lower Snake River dams, should we choose to apply these gifts prudentially to the task of renewing the ecosystem within which we must live.
The lower Snake River dams and concomitant hatcheries represent brute-force engineering, in which a mentality of domination over creation attempts to control the environment at its own expense. If engineers are to engage in “the practical study of how to make people and things work together better,” we must understand “better” in the Great Economy context. Berry again: “Competitiveness cannot be the ruling principle, for the Great Economy is not a ‘side’ that we can join nor are there such ‘sides’ within it. Thus it is not the ‘sum of its parts’ but a membership of parts inextricably joined to each other, indebted to each other, receiving significance and worth from each other and from the whole.” The Great Economy is the Kingdom of God that leads to shalom: God and humanity and the rest of creation working as a single, seamless unit.
For many Christians, the domination ethic originates from an interpretation of the cultural mandate in Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” In this sense “dominion” is construed as ruling over, controlling, commanding—that is, domination. And, indeed, there are times when we must exercise dominion militaristically to preserve and lift up human life, as when we destroy pathogenic organisms with chlorine disinfection in water treatment facilities. But to extend this sense to our relationship with all of creation transforms us from stewards, servants, and kinsmen of creation into tyrants. Another way of saying it: there is nothing wrong with this monarchical understanding of our dominion, provided the kingship we emulate is like that of King Jesus. Unfortunately, we cannot live up to this standard. Thus, removal of dams constructed with a little-economy mindset must be symbolic of removal of our domination mentality. Such is the upside-down kingdom of Christ: in the death of the old, we make room for new creation, an engineering that is worthy of the King.
Salmon’s death gives life to others, literally feeding both us and the forests in which they spawn. Perhaps to be born again of water and spirit we must return to our own natal streams. In my best moments on the river I am Adam, fishing not for salmon but for shalom. Cultivate and keep, saith the Maker, and he renders unto me, silver and bright, Genesis blessing. Soul-smitten, I collapse in gratitude. What shall I render to the Lord?