The Snake River and the Fish Ladder

Editorial: Port pollution is a crisis. It’s going to take more than a $20 container fee to fix it.

Last month I went on a two-week road trip through the U.S. West Coast, during which I visited 14 rivers and streams, from the Snake River in Idaho to the Klamath River in Oregon.

There are some places, like Idaho’s Boise River, that have been polluted by the same toxic load for hundreds of years. The main thing to know is that it’s been happening, but it’s also been an extraordinary opportunity to learn about the effects as a system, which I saw in action.

I also had the chance to talk to state and federal regulators, and learn about what they’re doing right now to try to cut pollution. A couple of the problems are that they have few resources and no system to make up for not having much money.

Then there is the issue of money: The people are the ones most responsible for our actions, and sometimes that responsibility is hard to balance. For example, a well-known study came out in 2011 and found that the average daily water flow from the lower Snake River was at 17.7 million gallons, while the average daily flow from the upper reach, and especially from the south side of where a fish ladder was built, was just 1.2 million gallons.

That shows us that a $100,000 a day flow, which was the baseline, has a much greater effect on the species than does a $1,000 a day flow, and a lot more effect.

The problem wasn’t solved by the fish ladder, which took place over a 16-day period and cost over $2 million. The issue is structural. The only reason we built the fish ladder in the first place was because the population was growing so quickly and our water infrastructure was failing. I learned a lot during that trip, but most of all, I learned that we also have a chance to go back to the drawing board, to think about the system more holistically, and try to find more options like the fish ladder that might help address both the upstream and downstream problems.

The problem of pollution is a critical issue for our water system

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