Much of the Pacific Northwest and California have been embroiled in a legal fur ball for the past several decades. At its center: fish.
To be exact, several populations of salmon and steelhead that migrate up the region’s rivers to spawn are blocked by dams.
That is the simple version of the issue. Throw in a generous helping of politics, Native American culture, environmentalism, bureaucracy and the Endangered Species Act and you can see why billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on lawyers, helicopters, trucks, fish ladders and other accoutrements required by judges and bureaucrats.
Into this scenario walks Vincent Bryan III, a lawyer and inventor who has come up with a relatively simple and inexpensive way of getting fish past dams. His system uses air pressure to push salmon through a tube. He calls it a “salmon cannon” but it’s far more gentle than the name suggests. In a few seconds, the fish can make the previously impossible trip over the dam, no worse for wear.
One would think Bryan’s system, developed by his company, Whooshh Innovations, would get lots of attention from fisheries biologists, environmentalists, Native Americans — even politicians, who all say they want to help fish get to their spawning grounds.
Some have shown interest, but it apparently isn’t as much fun as traipsing into court to fight over fish.
In fact, everyone should be interested in Bryan’s Whooshh system, especially in situations where dams have been targeted for removal.
On the Klamath River, for example, hundreds of millions of dollars from utility ratepayers and taxpayers are being set aside to take out four dams so the salmon can get upstream. For a fraction of that cost, the Whooshh system could help the fish over the dams during spawning season. A portion of the electricity generated by the dams would more than pay for the system.
Similarly, folks have proposed taking out four dams on the Snake River. Again, using the “cannon” the fish could be transported past those dams — no helicopters, trucks or other paraphernalia needed.
Fish could get help over other dams up and down the Snake, Columbia, Klamath and on other rivers.
The federal and state governments appear reticent to try the Whooshh or other devices for getting fish around dams. They seem to think old-fashioned fish ladders, which cost millions of dollars, are adequate. The problem is ladders can’t work in many situations, especially if the dam is too tall.
Unfortunately, many environmentalists don’t appear to be interested, either. If they were, they’d be insisting on testing such devices.
Here’s the catch: Many of these disputes don’t appear to be about solving problems. They are about arguing about them in court and in the state legislatures and in Congress.
It is a case of politics over solutions.
Or maybe some folks only want to get rid of the dams. That’s ignoring the fact that the Columbia and Snake river dams generate nearly half the region’s electricity and prevent places such as Portland from being flooded.
We urge people who have a genuine interest in the survival of native fish populations to consider new alternatives for solving these old problems.
We all know one thing. The old alternatives — mainly lawsuits — don’t work.