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Northwest Newspaper Hydropower Articles

Tribes, others hope salmon can return over Oregon dams

By Jeff Barnard
Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer

CHILOQUIN, Ore. -- Ever since Gmukumps -- the creator -- showed them how, the people of the Klamath Marsh camped each spring along the Sprague River to spear and trap tchiyals -- the salmon that swam more than 200 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the upper Klamath Basin.

"There were a lot of taboos with fish, because we were afraid no more fish would come," said Gerald Skelton, cultural and heritage director of the Klamath Tribes, as he showed off a fishing site along the Sprague River.

The salmon stopped coming all the way up the Klamath River in 1910, first blocked by weirs to gather salmon eggs for federal hatcheries, and later permanently blocked by a series of dams to feed the West's growing demand for electricity.

With PacifiCorp seeking renewal of its operating license for those dams, Indian tribes, conservation groups, sport and commercial fishermen and state and federal agencies are looking for a way to open 350 miles of rivers in the upper basin to salmon.

Though willing to study the idea, PacifiCorp did not include it in the 7,000-page application submitted in March to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission -- a decision that severely disappointed groups that took part in nearly 200 meetings the past two years.

"We want salmon reintroduced into the upper Klamath Basin," said Klamath Tribes Chairman Allen Foreman. "That would provide not only subsistence for the tribes but recreational opportunities for nontribal members.

"The Klamath Basin was once the third-largest producer of salmon on the West Coast, after the Sacramento in California and the Columbia in the Northwest.

Since the dams went in, runs have fallen 90 percent, said World Wildlife Fund biologist Brian Barr. Spring chinook that spawned in the upper basin are gone. Coho are a threatened species. Fall chinook are so precarious that protecting them dictates ocean fishing up and down the West Coast.

"Our eye is on that 350 miles of habitat and wondering what role it could play in restoration," said Barr.

PacifiCorp faces two major tests in the licensing process: whether it must restore salmon to the upper basin, and whether it must improve Klamath River water quality, which suffers from warm temperatures and the residue of livestock grazing and farming, which may or may not be exacerbated by the dams.

Overshadowing this is the long-standing fight over sharing scarce water, needed by both endangered suckers and threatened coho and by farms irrigated by the Klamath Reclamation Project, which was partially shut down during the 2001 drought to protect fish.

"Relicensing is a tremendous opportunity for bringing the project up to the environmental standards of today's laws," said Amy Stuart, hydropower program biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But it's real difficult. It depends on the willingness of the operator, it depends on the agency prescribing mandatory conditions, and it also means reconciling a lot of different competing interests for the same project.

"PacifiCorp puts the cost of new fish ladders to get spawning adults over the dams and screens to keep migrating smolts out of turbines at $100 million.

With computer modeling indicating those improvements won't produce a self-sustaining run of fall chinook in 40 miles of river occupied by the dams, "We don't feel it would be a good use of our ratepayers' money," said Toby Freeman, PacifiCorp hydro licensing manager.

Key work yet to be done is computer modeling to assess what happens if salmon reach the upper basin.Federal agencies have the power to demand fish passage, and the states can add their support.

Oregon is leaning that way. California has not declared itself.PacifiCorp has not divulged how much it would be willing to spend, though Freeman said they would favor the cheaper alternative of hauling fish in trucks rather than spending $100 million for ladders and screen.

Freeman wants to see hard scientific evidence salmon once spawned in the upper basin rather than relying on tribal histories -- an attitude that riles the tribes.

According to a history compiled by the Oregon Department of Water Resources, overfishing, gold mining and irrigation were causing severe declines in salmon returns in the Klamath Basin by the early 1900s.

Salmon were permanently shut out of the upper basin in 1917 by construction of Copco No. 1, a 250-foot-tall concrete dam just south of the Oregon-California border. Five more followed and by the 1960s produced 151 megawatts.The dams spread along 64 miles of river, starting 190 miles from the Pacific at Iron Gate. Upstream is Copco No. 2, Copco No. 1, J.C. Boyle, Keno and Link River, which controls releases from Upper Klamath Lake in Klamath Falls.

PacifiCorp wants to abandon two small powerhouses on Link River. The cost of making them fish-friendly for endangered suckers is too great.Keno produces no power. PacifiCorp wants to give it to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for irrigation.

With 80 megawatts, J.C. Boyle is the big producer. Some fish passage proponents envision a scenario where the other dams are decommissioned, but J.C. Boyle remains with new ladders and screens.Copco No. 1 produces 20 megawatts and has no ladder.

Neither does Copco No. 2, with 27 megawatts. Iron Gate has no ladder and feeds a hatchery. It produces 18 megawatts and smooths peaking flows from upstream dams."

At this point, nobody is advocating for removal" of the dams, said Curtis Knight of California Trout.

"We're advocating for serious evaluation of all serious alternatives."

Knight concedes much of the habitat, particularly the Sprague River, is in poor condition, due to grazing, logging and irrigation, but he notes redband trout survive in it.

A lot of restoration has been done on the Wood and Williamson rivers, and attention is focusing on the Sprague to improve conditions for endangered suckers at the center of fish-farm battles.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has told PacifiCorp that its goals include salmon swimming to the upper basin, but the agency has not decided whether to mandate that, as it can under the Federal Power Act.

A leading reason would be to fulfill tribal trust responsibilities to the Klamath, Karuk, Hoopa and Yurok tribes, said John Engbring, Klamath supervisor for Fish and Wildlife.

The Hoopa and Yurok are suing the federal government over the 2002 loss of 35,000 chinook on the Klamath blamed on low flows and poor water quality.Meanwhile, the National Research Council has urged consideration of removing Iron Gate to help fish.

"There's a lot happening right now," said Engbring, though getting chinook back in the Sprague "would be quite a feat.

"NOAA Fisheries, which oversees federal salmon restoration efforts, has the same power.

"We certainly like to restore passage where we can," said Jim Lecky, assistant regional administrator. "That's the question, whether we can do it here."

A 2003 California Energy Commission report urged serious consideration of decommissioning the dams because losing their output would not significantly affect power supplies.

PacifiCorp counters that though the output is small, it is valuable because it can be turned on and off to meet sudden surges in demand.

Freeman added that new information is emerging that the dams may improve water quality, settling out algae from Upper Klamath Lake.

Knight and Barr hope a deal can still be negotiated to restore salmon to the upper basin.

"The Federal Power Act says that hydro projects have to balance," said Knight. "It's 300-plus miles of habitat involved in the coastal economy and tribes, and what is this all for? One hundred fifty megawatts of power."


Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer
Seattle, WA
April 11, 2004

Related Links:
Copco 1
Copco 2
John Boyle


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