At last, an opening for Klamath salmon

At last, an opening for Klamath salmon

August 06, 2006

PacifiCorp says it may be willing to remove its dams, but the states must help the utility and its ratepayers

Everyone who depends on the Klamath River, from farmers to fishermen, is parsing PacifiCorp’s recent statement that it’s open to removal of its Klamath dams “as long as our customers are not harmed and our property rights are respected.”

What, exactly, does that mean? Is this a significant shift in company policy, as some Klamath River tribes and conservation groups claim? Or is this a mighty big “if,” and more or less the same position the company has held all along in talks over a new 50-year license to operate its dams?

We think PacifiCorp’s statement should be read as an opening for Klamath salmon, and an invitation for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to join the negotiations, and to bring with them some bold ideas.

The series of power-generating dams on the Klamath River are among the biggest of a long line of obstacles confronting salmon on what was once one of the most productive rivers on the West Coast. The river is now so shallow, so warm and so badly polluted that salmon runs have plunged, and the federal government has all but shut down offshore commercial salmon fishing along much of Oregon and California.

The dams are not all that trouble the Klamath, which also suffers from heavy irrigation withdrawals, runoff and habitat loss. But with the relicensing of the dams, this is a real opportunity for a huge breakthrough on one of the West’s largest and most intractable environmental issues.

PacifiCorp is in the middle of a long and convoluted federal relicensing process that could lead to the company being ordered to install hugely expensive fish passage at its dams. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it believes the utility should have to install fish ladders and fish screens. The utility has argued that because so much of the upstream habitat is damaged, and of uncertain value to migrating salmon, the company should be allowed to use a “trap and haul” process to move fish around the dams, and then determine if they can successfully reproduce upstream.

If the federal government stands firm on fish passage, which could cost as much as $200 million, there is an opportunity for the states and other interested parties to work out an agreement with PacifiCorp to shut down the power plants and breach the dams.

These dams are not huge power producers like the power plants on the Columbia and Snake rivers; together they produce about 150 megawatts, only about 1.7 percent of PacifiCorp’s total output, or enough to power about 75,000 homes. That generation could be replaced, especially if the states came through with substantial tax credits and production subsidies.

It is not yet clear how much that would cost, but any calculation of the costs and benefits of these dams has to take into account the ongoing damage to the West Coast salmon fishery, which this year alone could top $100 million in Oregon and California.

Hearings in the PacifiCorp relicensing case will begin Aug. 21 in San Francisco. As the relicensing goes forward, the governors and other key leaders should come to the table with proposals to meet the utility’s needs and, after nearly a century, create the possibility of reopening most of the Klamath River to salmon.