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Calif. agency finds removing dams would be feasible

9/27/2006 By JEFF BARNARD, Oregonian

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) Studies for a California state agency indicate removing four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River to help salmon would not be so expensive as feared, because sediments built up behind the dams contain very low levels of toxic leftovers from gold mining, farming and plywood manufacturing.

The studies for the California State Coastal Conservancy, filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Tuesday, also found that only about 5 percent of the 21 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dams would wash out, and it all could be gone in one winter rainy season.

PacifiCorp, a utility based in Portland, is seeking a new 50-year operating license from FERC to operate Iron Gate, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and J.C. Boyle dams on the Klamath River in southern Oregon and Northern California. The dams produce a combined 150 megawatts, enough electricity for 70,000 customers and 2 percent of PacifiCorp's production.

Indian tribes, salmon fishermen and conservation groups are pressing PacifiCorp to remove the dams to help the Klamath's struggling salmon runs, which were so poor this year that federal fisheries managers practically shut down commercial salmon fishing off the West Coast to protect them.

The conservancy undertook the studies at the request of interest groups that have been meeting for years seeking a negotiated settlement that could take the place of any decision that will come from FERC on PacifiCorp's application for a new license.

They wanted answers to two crucial questions: how much sediment was behind the dams, and was it so toxic after a century of gold mining, farming and wood products manufacturing that it would make removing the dams prohibitively expensive, said Michael Bowen, project manager for the conservancy.

"It's hard to find a place in the world these days that comes out as clean as those reservoirs came," said Bowen. "We believe decommissioning is feasible and affordable."

PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme said any decision on removing the dams will take much more study. The utility has proposed trucking salmon around the dams rather than building fish ladders or removing the dams.

"While it addresses some potential environmental issues, it isn't a comprehensive environmental review," he said. "A full assessment of the environmental impacts of a dam-removal scenario, should we ever get to that stage, would likely take years of study by several federal and state agencies before any agreed-upon removal strategy could be developed. "

Indian tribes, conservation groups and commercial salmon fishermen cheered the findings.

Steve Rothert of American Rivers noted that the economic analysis by FERC found that when federal agencies' mandates for making the dams more fish-friendly are taken into account, PacifiCorp would lose $28.7 million a year operating the dams.

"If PacifiCorp is going to pursue the least-cost option for their customers, they should think about removing these dams," Rothert said. "The six (public utility commissions) they have to justify their expenditures to, I would think would be looking at this the same way."

Federal agencies told FERC earlier this year that PacifiCorp must install fish ladders, fish screens and reduce the amount of water diverted to turbines to help struggling returns of salmon.

However, under a new change in federal law, the utility has challenged those mandates. An administrative law judge is expected to issue a ruling this week.

Earlier this week, FERC issued a draft environmental impact statement recommending none of the dams be removed, and that salmon be put in trucks to gradually reintroduce them to sections of the river behind the dams.

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