Dam ruling supports fish on Klamath

Dam ruling supports fish on Klamath

By Matt Weiser
Sacramento Bee
September 29, 2006

A federal judge ruled Wednesday there is ample evidence that salmon will benefit from improved access to the Klamath River, a decision that some believe may ultimately lead to removal of dams on the river.

The ruling came in an administrative hearing process over the relicensing of four Klamath River Dams owned by PacifiCorp, based in Portland.

At the hearings, held in Sacramento in August, PacifiCorp contested a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service order that fish ladders be installed on the dams. The company argued there isn’t sufficient habitat to benefit the fish. It proposed instead a trap-and-haul operation, in which migrating fish would be trucked around the dams.

But the ruling by Administrative Law Judge Parlen McKenna, based in Alameda, supported the Fish and Wildlife Service on many key points.

The ruling does not specifically endorse fish ladders. But the judge concluded that ladders would open 58 miles of suitable habitat, benefiting salmon and other fish, and that fish are available to repopulate those areas. McKenna also concluded that current dam operations harm fish by restricting their movements and killing them in unscreened turbines.

The ruling means the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is likely to impose fish ladders as a condition of dam relicensing, said Craig Tucker, spokesman for the Karuk Tribe, which owns land along the river.

But because building ladders is probably more expensive than simply demolishing the dams, he argues, the end result of the Mc-Kenna’s ruling could be dam removal.

“The scientific argument for fish passage now is overwhelming,” said Tucker. “This is a big boost for dam-removal efforts.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service also cheered the ruling. Its demands for other improvements to benefit trout and lamprey in the river were also upheld by the judge.

“We look forward to starting the restoration of this amazing river so that future generations may enjoy this important and vital natural resource,” Steve Thompson, Fish and Wildlife Service regional manager, said in a statement.

PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme, however, said the ruling will not necessarily lead to a fish ladder requirement, because the relicensing process must consider the cost to the company and its ratepayers.

The company plans to continue pushing for its trap-and-haul option, he said, along with a proposal to test salmon reintroduction in suitable areas above the dams.

“That said, we’re disappointed with many findings of the judge, and we don’t agree with them,” Kvamme said. “The judge didn’t have to address costs in his ruling, and he doesn’t, but the next steps are designed to do that.”

The Klamath River was once home to the third-biggest salmon runs on the West Coast. But dams, water diversions and pollution have reduced those runs to the brink of collapse.

This year, federal regulators curtailed ocean commercial salmon fishing to just 10 percent of normal in hopes of preserving enough Klamath River salmon to spawn the next generation of fish.

Biologists have argued that dam removal won’t be a cure-all for the river. They believe solutions must include restoring shady river habitat, returning more cold water to the river from upstream diversions, and reducing pollution from logging and agriculture.

Yet dam removal has come to dominate the discussion, partly because the federal dam relicensing process comes along only once in a generation.

In a draft environmental impact statement on the relicensing issued by FERC this week, the agency’s staff favors PacifiCorp’s trap-and-haul proposal along with installation of a single fish ladder at some point where habitat is later determined to be best.

But the report acknowledges that fish ladders on each dam may become the final decision when the relicensing process is finished. And it also finds that removing the two dams that pose the most significant barrier to fish — Irongate and Copco No. 1 — would be cheaper than building fish ladders.

“What this court ruling means is that true fish passage is a long step closer to reality, even if the dams are not ultimately removed,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.