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Tribes seek Klamath dam removal

Iron Gate Dam

April 1, 2006 by STEVE KADEL  H&N Staff Writer

Leaf Hillman dreams of a Klamath River running red with salmon all the way to the upper Klamath Basin.

The Karuk Tribe member of California recalls an era when salmon freely negotiated the river's 350-mile northern reaches. Then, the Basin was the West Coast's third most productive salmon river system. Escapement totals - fish that returned to their spawning grounds - averaged 660,000 to 1.1 million annually. Chinook, or king salmon, filled the Klamath's waters along with coho, chum and steelhead.

A series of dams built in the early 1900s changed everything. Since then - despite treaty rights allowing Klamath Tribes to fish for salmon - that key cultural and subsistence activity is only a memory because dams prevent passage upstream.

The Klamath Tribes, along with the Karuk and Yurok tribes of California, want that changed. And they got support this week from two powerful federal agencies.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries recommended that fish ladders and turbine screens be installed at four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River below the Oregon-California line. They want the additions to be required as part of PacifiCorp's re-licensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is pending.

However, PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme said that would cost about $200 million and require electricity rates to increase. He added that a hatchery at Iron Gate Dam already lures 20,000 salmon back to spawn each year.

Tribes see things differently.

“The Klamath dams are poor producers of electricity, they do not provide flood control, they do not provide irrigation or drinking water - all they do is kill fish,” Hillman said. “This is destroying tribal cultures as well as the California and Oregon fishing economies. It's time to hold PacifiCorp responsible.”

The Klamath Tribes stand with their California neighbors on the issue. Chairman Allen Foreman notes that Tribes members in Oregon haven't fished for salmon since the first dam was built in 1917.

“The Klamath generally favor removal of the dams,” said Bud Ullman, water lawyer for the Klamath Tribes. “That's plainly what's best for the resource.”

Neither NOAA Fisheries nor Fish and Wildlife went that far in their recommendations. However, tribes believe it is a good starting point.

Ladders and screens would not solve the problem of toxic algae blooms, according to Karuk water quality specialist Susan Corum. Such blooms in Klamath reservoirs last summer exceeded the World Health Organization standard for moderate risk by more than 100 times, she said.

The toxic blooms affect water quality and “threaten those of us who live downstream,” Corum said.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations agrees the dams should be taken out.

“We cannot restore salmon without improving water quality and providing access to spawning habitat,” he said. “The only way to do that is by removing those dams.”

Karuk Tribe spokesman Craig Tucker said removal is a better economic step, too. He estimates removal would cost half as much as building ladders, while allowing better fish passage.

Kvamme said PacifiCorp's license application does not address the issue.

“There are a number of reasons why we don't think any significant numbers of fish could be produced in the upper Basin,” he said. “The water quality coming out of Upper Klamath Lake is not good.

“With the lake in the condition it is, and with runoff and other agricultural, logging and past mining activities we don't think it makes much sense.”

The expensive fish ladders would include one at Iron Gate Dam stretching more than a mile, Kvamme said.

He challenged the contention that the dams - Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, J.C. Boyle and Iron Gate - don't produce much energy. Their combined output is enough for 70,000 customers, he said.

“That's more than enough electricity to serve all our customers in California and many more,” Kvamme said. “We don't think it's an insignificant amount of energy.”

It would require burning 360 tons of coal or consuming 5 million cubic feet of gas to equal the lost power if dams were closed, he said.

Fish and Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries don't have authority to demand dams be removed or fish ladders be installed. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will make the final decision in its re-licensing agreement.

Meanwhile, a wide-ranging group of stakeholders has met for the past year in hopes of finding a collaborative solution. Talks have included representatives from the Klamath Water Users Association, four tribes, PacifiCorp, off-project water users, environmental groups, commercial fishing organizations, and Oregon and California state governments.

Greg Addington, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, said his membership might go along with dam removal if they won certain concessions.

Those include reliable and affordable electric power, certainty of water availability each year for irrigation, and a “safe harbor” as far as fish passage is concerned.

The latter means irrigators would be held harmless as far as water consumption by another endangered species - salmon - entering the upper Basin.

“We're a long way from getting that done,” Addington said. “But if the parties at the table can help us achieve those things, then we wouldn't say no to dam removal.”





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