Fate of Klamath River dams in play
Federal officials call for upgrades to four
of them to help salmon get upriver. But it may be
cheaper to take the barriers down.
By Eric Bailey, Times Staff Writer January 31,
Graphic Opening the Klamath to salmon click to
enlargeSACRAMENTO — Federal officials called
Tuesday for costly improvements to four Klamath
River dams, a move that could hasten removal of a
hydropower system that for generations has blocked
imperiled salmon from their upriver spawning
Interior and Commerce Department officials said
that in order to get its license renewed,
Portland-based PacifiCorp would be required to
install fish ladders and screens to ease the
salmon's annual migration.
The cost of such improvements could reach $470
million, as much as $285 million more than the
cost of removing the dams and replacing their
electricity for the next 30 years, according to a
That vast cost discrepancy could put pressure on
the power company — a subsidiary of billionaire
Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway empire — to
negotiate a truce with Indian tribes, fishermen
and environmentalists pushing for demolition of
the towering structures.
The Klamath, which emerges from the snowmelt of
the Cascade Range in Oregon and dashes south into
California before emptying into the sea north of
Eureka, once was the nation's third-most
productive salmon river, with up to 1.2 million
salmon and steelhead trout joining an epic annual
migration to spawn.
Today, the river's coho salmon are on the
endangered species list, and its chinook salmon
have suffered such steep declines that the 2006
commercial season was virtually shut down on the
Activists say decommissioning the hydropower
project, which produces enough electricity to
light 70,000 homes, could help restore health to a
river system hit by water quality problems,
fish-killing diseases, diversions for farming and
"This would represent the largest and most
ambitious dam removal project in the country, if
not the world," said Steve Rothert of the
environmental group American Rivers. "Some dams
have been taller, but these on the Klamath cast a
bigger footprint on the landscape; 350 miles of
upstream habitat would be reopened."
A spokesman for PacifiCorp said the company plans
to press ahead with its effort to win a new
license from the Federal Energy Regulatory
Commission but believes a settlement with anti-dam
activists and federal agencies could prove the
"We never said we wouldn't consider dam removal as
an outcome in the settlement process," said Dave
Kvamme, a company spokesman. "But there's no
silver bullet. There's an assumption that if you
take out the dams, the fish will come. That
ignores so many other problems on the river."
Last March, federal officials issued a preliminary
call for fish ladders, boosting hopes among
In the months since then, PacifiCorp has waged a
fight to persuade U.S. wildlife agencies to accept
its alternative: a plan to trap the adult fish and
haul them around the dams. Wildlife officials
concluded that the alternative would provide less
protection than ladders.
The four dams pose a big obstacle. The tallest
rises 157 feet above the river bed, requiring a
fish ladder six-tenths of a mile long.
Such long fish ladders have historically been
ineffective, PacifiCorp's Kvamme said, with salmon
becoming exhausted and confused as they attempt to
climb scores of steps.
Company officials are uneasy, meanwhile, about
government estimates comparing the costs of
keeping the dams with those of demolishing them.
Kvamme said it was impossible to estimate
accurately how much replacement energy would cost
in coming decades if the hydro dams were razed.
Dam removal, meanwhile, could be far more costly
than anyone imagines, Kvamme said. Dealing with
the 20 million cubic yards of sediment trapped
behind the dams could cost $1.5 billion or more,
Kvamme also said the Klamath's network of
tributaries — among them the Shasta, Scott and
Salmon rivers — all suffer ecological troubles
that would not be addressed by dam removal.
Though the company has fought to win license
renewal for the dams, it has also participated in
regular settlement negotiations for nearly two
years with government agencies, Native American
tribes, fishermen, farmers and other groups with
stakes in the Klamath's health.
The closed-door negotiations have in recent weeks
reportedly narrowed the range of potential
solutions, prompting anticipation among
participants that a slate of solutions could be
reached in a compromise.
"I continue to believe that a locally driven,
basin-wide approach holds the most promising hope
for a comprehensive solution to the river's
problems," said Steve Thompson, U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service manager for California and