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Dam removal surfaces in blue-green algae issue
By DEBORRA CLAYTON and TIM RIOS - Siskiyou Daily News  September 14, 2006 

SISKIYOU COUNTY – Controversy continues over the effects of blue-green algae detected in parts of the Klamath River – and what, if anything, ought to be done.

After high levels of a blue-green algae species known as microcystis aeruginosa were found in samples taken from Copco Lake and Irongate Reservoir earlier this summer, a flurry of activity followed.

State and local agencies, Indian tribes, and community groups voiced their concerns.

In additional to possible health risks associated with the algae, the conversation about this embattled subject grew to include dam relicensing, testing protocol and media coverage issues.

This month PacifiCorp will hear from a Sacramento judge regarding their request to renew licenses for several Klamath River dams.

The 50-year dam licenses have come under scrutiny as the area’s fishing industry has declined.

Several Indian tribes, conservationists and fisherman, among others, have called for the removal of the dams as a solution to what they call the declining health of the salmon and steelhead, and ultimately to the fishing industry as well.

“It’s time to ask after 50 years: do these dams provide a net benefit or does the cost, economical and environmental, outweigh the benefits?” Karuk Tribe department of natural resources Klamath campaign coordinator Craig Tucker has said. “We think the cost outweighs the benefit.”

Copco and Irongate residents said that they believe having the Karuk Tribe collecting the Klamath water samples to determine blue green algae levels involves a conflict of interest.

“I think it’s all a political thing to get the dams removed,” said Copco resident K.C. Walden.

Herman Diaz added, “I think we are fighting a horrendous public relations battle.”

They even say the dams are doing lower Klamath river residents a favor.

“They should be thankful,” said Jeanne Diaz. “My husband was in a drift boat below the dams and the water was clean.”

Diaz goes on to say her husband reported that the fish he saw down river were already “pretty beat up,” questioning how they would even make it all the way up the Klamath river if the dams were removed.

Karuk Tribe vice-chairman Leaf Hillman feels that accusing the tribe of using the toxic blue-green algae’s presence to have the dams removed is “over the top.”

“This tribe is a government just like any other government. We are responsible for our people’s health. We should be erring on the side of safety,” he said.

In a letter published in the Daily News, however, Tucker raised a point of intersection between the dam removal and the algae issues.

“PacifiCorp’s dams create shallow, warm, and stagnant reservoirs in a river system already rich in nutrients. In essence, the dams create the ideal habitat for the toxic algae,” he wrote.

From the standpoint of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to senior policy advisor Maria Rea, the blue-green algae and its possible toxic effect is not necessarily tied to the dam removal issue.

She declined to comment on whether the EPA thinks the Klamath dams play a part in the recently recorded high levels of blue-green algae found in the reservoirs.

Rea said that although it can’t be counted out, dam removal may not solve the problem anyway.

“We just don’t know,” she said.

Rea said that many factors could affect the issue: from nutrient loads to stagnant waters that could aid in the bloom’s growth, to mixing waters to break up algae blooms.

Tucker’s letter stated his assessment that “Until PacifiCorp’s dams are removed, this human health risk will remain, our fisheries will decline, and property values in the area will suffer. It’s time we hold PacifiCorp accountable for their impacts on our water quality and economy.”

Though PacifiCorp is lobbying for the dam license renewals, they say they are willing to give up the fight - under the right circumstances.

In a press statement PacifiCorp president Bill Fehrman said, “We have heard the Tribes’ concerns. We are not opposed to dam removal or other settlement opportunities as long as our customers are not harmed and our property rights are respected.”

Copco resident Ruth Waltner stated, “A PacifiCorp representative spoke to us here some months ago and explained how dam removal would lower our property values, which would then lower revenue to the county (tax base), which would then lower allocations of county monies for fire, law enforcement, libraries and a plethora or social programs, which the folks who want the dams removed, also depend on. It would hurt us all.”

Waltner also stated that power for some 70,000 county customers would be cut if the dams were removed.

Mount Shasta resident Ken Burger, who owns a cabin at Copco Lake, has a number of concerns regarding testing protocols.

He said that before retiring from the East Bay Regional Park District a few years ago, he developed the water quality monitoring program for that park system.

He also said he had worked at the S.F. Bay RWQCB for six years prior to that.

“I think a more appropriate sampling technique that characterizes the lake would include plankton tows — vertical — to characterize the water column and the lake in general not the “worst case” scenario of wind driven accumulations of algae along the shoreline,” he said.

Rae said that samples were taken along the shores as well as at mid-reservoir to test deeper waters.

She also said sampling techniques and protocols used by the Karuk Tribe met the EPA’s quality assurance and quality control standards.

Rae said efforts are being made to assess the possible problem posed by human contact with the toxic algae and find any necessary solutions.

After the elevated algae levels were detected, she reported, a workgroup consisting of the EPA, Siskiyou County Public Health, the Karuk Tribe, the Yurok Tribe, the Department of Health Services and Humboldt State University, among others, was formed.

Rae said that the workgroup is putting together scientific hypotheses and water management strategies to best address the situation.

“We’re just getting started,” Rea said. “We want to be as open to the public as possible during the process.”

Her concern, she added, is to make sure the community is safe while the group works towards a solution to the algae problem.

Rea said that the blue-green algae is a worldwide issue and not just a problem in Siskiyou County, despite the high levels detected.

She feels that the fact that the Klamath is recording high levels at this time does not necessarily mean it is the water source most affected by the algae. Other sites just may not have been tested yet.

Siskiyou County Public Health Director David Herfindahl concurred.

He stated in a press release that although $750,000 in state money was allocated last year to help assess the potential health issue statewide, he is “not aware of any work that has occurred this season at any of the water bodies in California identified to have algal blooms other than sampling in the Klamath River.”

Since the initial testing, microcystis aeruginosa toxins have been detected in the lower Klamath, according to Yurok Tribe environmental program water division assistant director Ken Fetcho.

Fetcho said that the Yurok now will continue to monitor the lower river every two weeks, checking for elevated levels of toxins.

Though no conclusive evidence on the long-term effects of exposure to blue-green algae exists, Tucker’s letter stated that microcystis aeruginosa toxin causes liver damage and liver tumors in laboratory mice.

That claim is validated by university studies conducted at Jichi Medical School Department of Microbiology in 1981. Several other universities conducted the same tests and got the same results.

None, however, have conducted any long-term testing on human subjects.

Copco and Irongate residents said that they will continue to get the word out and fight against the removal of the dams, which would effectively end their way of lake life.

“Papers from San Diego all the way up to Oregon have presented the Karuks’ side,” Herman Spannaus said. “It’s all about the Karuks’, their agenda and how the algae is allegedly dangerous. No one has taken the time to talk to us, to get our side.”

The residents said that what they find to be “bad press” is affecting their lifestyles. They say tourism is down at the lake and visitors are fewer than in recent years.

“The Sacramento Bee has characterized the lake as a ‘radioactive putting green’ with ‘algae concentrations 3900 times greater than the WHO standard’ without qualifying that the sample only represented a very near shore sample or worst case,” Burger reported.

Hillman said that he isn’t satisfied with how the press has handled the blue-green algae issue.

“As far as I’m concerned, the media coverage up until now has been irresponsible,” Hillman said.

His complaint, he explained, is that the blue-green algae issue is not getting enough press.
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