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Adding an Indigenous Perspective to a Global Scientific Effort

Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink of GRO (in light green hat) leads supporters of the group in a daily water-quality sampling outing on the Snake. These samples will be analyzed in Vienna where even their collection location can be identified. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

In an exciting collaboration to better understand the world’s most complicated watersheds, the Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have joined forces to create the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO)—an ambitious effort committed to the continuous study of watershed health around the world.

So how cool that they recently invited us to join them and bring an indigenous perspective to their group of international scientists, conservationists, and supporters? Together, we embarked on an expedition to collect water-quality data from the Columbia and Snake Rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

Clear evidence of logging on the water and on the land. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Today there are very few major rivers not affected by development and other human influences, so we are thrilled to be collaborating with this group—and for their desire not only to include indigenous thoughts on watershed health and protections, but also to create collaborations with the local indigenous communities throughout these major watersheds.

Fall is a beautiful and inspiring time to witness the action within the Columbia Watershed’s immense ecosystem! The colorful foliage is extraordinary, the Chinook salmon are running, and the skies are filled with migrating birds! On the human side, the apples and grapes are ripe and the numerous wineries here are running full tilt.

Anya Suslova (Max’s Greatest Arctic Discovery!) describes meeting scientist, Max Holmes, when he hired her father’s boat for research on Siberia’s Lena River. In the photo of her dad visible on the monitor, you can see Anya in the bridge window to the lower right. Then, at age 13, Anya was a member of her dad’s crew. Today she’s a scientist on Max’s team at WHRC. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

But amid all the wonders of this amazing ecosystem, we were all really overwhelmed as we witnessed firsthand the impact of human influence on these rivers. To start, there are 29 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers so we were continually passing through locks as we navigated toward our destination, Hell’s Canyon. In some instances, migrating salmon are basically shot through cannon-like mechanisms to get upstream. (I’m not convinced that salmon love this process but it appears to get them on their way!)

Petraglyphs at Hell’s Canyon’s Buffalo Eddy on the Snake River. Believed to be around 2,000 years old, their origins are still debated. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

One presentation we saw highlighted the fact that the power demands on these dams during the breakfast and dinner hours spike significantly.

So how can we create a more symbiotic relationship between this vital, natural world and our epic human need?

The Columbia River and Mt. St. Helens. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Fortunately, many dedicated scientists are now seeing the value in stepping outside the comfort of their labs to engage the general public and raise awareness regarding these issues. Our friends from Woods Hole and GRO have rocked this effort by inviting non-scientists who are eager to learn and physically participate in the study of water health and science along on these global expeditions. On this particular journey, an architect, a nurse, a former TV personality and a forensic crash investigator were part the diverse group of travelers, and each participant had great thoughts and ideas to contribute in the discussions which followed the many scientific presentations given on board.

The fascinating geology of this region began with volcanic activity about 300 million years ago, and astounds the lay person and the scientist alike. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

This five-day Columbia Basin event was the third in a series of planned global river assessments, following the Amazon in 2015 and the Mekong last year. As is the case with every river in the GRO network (currently there are 18), initial studies are followed with a continuous monitoring process, performed by local scientists and other stakeholders who will maintain the effort in their regions, continuously feeding the GRO database.

The samples collected on every GRO expedition are assessed in the labs of the WHRC, WHOI, and by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency labs in Vienna—where a focus on isotopes will reveal an abundance of forensic data about the regions where the water is collected.

To learn more about this inspiring project, please visit globalrivers.org.

As always, we’re glad you’re interested!
Thanks for reading,
Jon & Mary