We’re Heading Into the Rapids All Wrong

My experience running a rapid on the Payette River in Idaho offers a metaphor and lesson for our time.

A kayaker on the Payette River in Idaho. Credit: Flickr/creative commons/Rick Hobson.

Lately, as I ponder our societal response, or lack of it, to the challenging times ahead – the droughts and floods and heat waves and crop failures, which we’ve tasted only as appetizers so far – I find myself recalling one of the scariest moments of my life.

Two decades ago I was thrown into a class-four rapid while rafting the South Fork of the Payette River in Idaho.  For an interminably long few minutes, I thought my number was up.

The rapid was called Staircase, a five-mile run known for its riotous whitewater, deep holes, big waves and pointed rocks. It’s a challenge for even seasoned kayakers, so barely shy of dangerous for anyone else.  Although fatalities from running Staircase are rare, close calls are not.

What got me into trouble was that we paddlers didn’t properly heed or execute our guide’s commands.  As a result, our boat headed into a giant wave at completely the wrong angle.  My friend and I, manning the front of the raft, got pitched out.

The boat shot rapidly ahead, leaving us swirling in whitewater, ricocheting between boulders, and gasping for air as the wild river had its way with us. The notion of “swimming” Staircase, even in a lifejacket, was a joke.

Within minutes, as I felt my energy draining away, I grasped the hard truth that Staircase might consume my last breath.  Into the din of its roaring whitewater, I called out for help.

Whether due to luck, fate or providential intercession, my friend and I both survived Staircase.  But I know it could just as well have gone the other way.

Today, society is making the same mistake in its approach to the coming turbulence due to climate change and water stress that our paddling crew made as we headed into Staircase: we’re not fully alert to the danger, executing a plan that will see us through, or adequately prepared for the consequences.

In other words, we’re heading into the rapids all wrong.

Instead of endless debates over appropriate income tax rates, we need to craft and levy a carbon tax that will bring our consumption of fossil fuels down to safe levels.  The danger of going over the fiscal cliff pales in comparison to going over the climate cliff.  Moreover, higher taxes on carbon fuels would allow for a reduction in taxes on income, thereby penalizing work and savings less and climate-altering carbon emissions more.

Likewise, burning fossil fuels to de-salt seawater attempts to solve the problem of water shortage by further disrupting the climate, which will only worsen droughts and water shortage—therefore, no real solution at all. And proposals for more giant pipelines to move water from one place to another are akin to moving deck chairs on the Titanic.  They might buy time, but they don’t solve the problem: we’re nearly all sunk if we don’t figure out how nine billion people can live sustainably on a finite water supply.

Spurring public and private investments in water conservation, efficiency, recycling and reuse; market shifts that result in greater value per gallon consumed; and consumer choices that shrink our individual water footprints remain the best options for sustainably meeting water demands – and they have barely been tapped.

What ultimately saved me from Staircase was a relatively calm patch of water downstream that allowed my fellow paddlers to wait for me while I attempted to make it through the treacherous whitewater.

Fortunately, we still have some calm waters in which to plan and prepare for the turbulence ahead. But the appetizers of wild weather we’ve tasted in recent years will soon be served up as main courses. With each passing day of inaction, our options for reducing the dangers diminish.

It’s time to ask our political leaders and communities to work together on a realistic plan to see us – and our children and grandchildren— safely through the turbulent times ahead.

It’s all about taking the rapids at the proper angle.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Dan Auerbach

    An appropriate metaphor. Past cultures wrapped on the boulders of salinized soils and silted canals offer fair warning; half a century of science has scouted the impending drops; the flow artificially spikes from the dam we’ve engineered above; but an intoxicated, arrogant and squabbling bunch of paddlers heads for an inadvertant read and run with no rescue possible. The current offers no solace other than the knowlege that it will continue to find a way to flow around wreckage.

  • terry

    Interesting. It was luck, I know. As far as water is concerned, here is an idea. Everybody needs a minumum amount of “subsistence” water throughout the day. Perhaps a multi-tiered pricing for water would provide subsistence water to everybody at a reasonable cost, a rate for farming with incentives for water conservation, and charging more for decorative water such as fountains in Las Vegas, or green grass in parks. As we need more subsistence water, charge the big users more and they will reduce their usage.

    I have a cabin in Island Park, Idaho, it has a well and a septic tank. It is a closed system, I take water out of the ground and put most of it back into the ground. I have lived in Phoenix and Albuquerque, the water tables there just keeps going down and down. Most of the water has is evaporated into the air. We need to think more about closed systems that retain water for entire communities.

    • Terry, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree with you more. More effective pricing – steeply tiered upward from basic needs to higher levels of use – is a practice we should be seeing more of.

  • Ima Ryma

    Some raft the rapids just for fun.
    Nature’s own roller coaster ride.
    Experts know how it should be done,
    But some get hurt and some have died.
    But one day too soon rapids will,
    With less fresh water, slow then stop,
    No more for funseekers to spill.
    The Earth will dry up drop by drop.
    Experts know there is time to fix,
    By changing water wasting ways.
    But wasting time in politics
    Means fresh water has numbered days.

    Here’s hoping politicians go
    On rapids rafting – doncha know!

  • James

    Why was the notion of swimming in a rapid like Staircase ‘impossible’?

    • Simply because keeping feet out in front, going with the flow, etc., was not possible due to the rocks, intense whitewater and other conditions of the rapid — at least as I experienced it!

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