Judge gives Klamath fish ladders a boost

Judge gives Klamath fish ladders a boost

By John Driscoll
September 29, 2006


A federal judge has laid the framework for federal agencies to demand that Klamath River dam owner PacifiCorp install fish ladders through its hydroelectric project.

U.S. Coast Guard Administrative Law Judge Parlen McKenna decided Wednesday that salmon could spawn in areas between the dams, and won’t introduce diseases to other fish above lowermost Iron Gate Dam.

The finding of facts tilted toward tribes, environmental and fishing groups hoping the dams can be decommissioned and removed. A recent analysis by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — weighing a new 50-year license for PacifiCorp’s project — estimated the project would operate at a loss of about $27 million a year if fish ladders and other conditions are imposed.

”We’re disappointed with many of the findings and we don’t agree with them,” said PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, which called for fish ladders and screens to protect young fish from getting trapped in turbines, still has to consider a proposal by PacifiCorp to truck both adult and juvenile fish above and below the dams. That pitches an adaptive program to see where fish reintroduced above the dams successfully take hold.

McKenna ruled that some 58 miles of habitat between the dams would be valuable to salmon and other species.

”I think he certainly affirmed what anybody looking at this river objectively concludes,” said Humboldt County Supervisor Jill Geist. “Clearly, PacifiCorp did not make their case.”

Salmon once spawned as far as the Williamson and Sprague rivers above Upper Klamath Lake. The project now blocks salmon from migrating to the upper 350 miles of river, and its development eliminated much of the formerly strong spring run of salmon.

Tribes and fishery proponents say the dams have harmed other species, like green sturgeon and lamprey, and the fall run of salmon — though bolstered by a hatchery — has suffered from diseases and low, hot, poor-quality water during recent years.

To protect wild Klamath salmon from being caught in the ocean along with other rivers’ fish, and ensure enough spawners make it upriver, fish managers virtually eliminated commercial fishing along 700 miles of the West Coast this year. The fishing industry tallied losses at about $80 million, and the federal government now considers the closure a disaster.

The ruling is the first of its kind under the 2005 Energy Act, that allows a dam owner to challenge federal fish and wildlife agency demands.

”This is the first test of this new process, and the process worked and science was upheld,” said Steve Edmondson, Northern California habitat supervisor for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Installing fish ladders and screens could cost Pacificorp more than $200 million, and significantly reduce the amount of electricity the project produces. In comparison, FERC recently proposed only minor changes to the process, which it estimated would still allow the company to make about $7 million per year.

PacifiCorp’s Kvamme said that the company will continue to focus on relicensing, which includes more consideration of economics and power production.

”This is just another step in the long task you have to go through,” Kvamme said.

Craig Tucker, a spokesman with the Karuk Tribe, said the ruling means that it will be cheaper to remove the dams than it will be to install fish ladders.

”This is going to be the thing that really motivates PacifiCorp to negotiate,” Tucker said.

Others see a long haul to restoration of the river.

”This is a long struggle, and we have not achieved fish recovery yet,” said Tom Schlosser, an attorney who has worked for years on the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s efforts to restore the Klamath’s biggest tributary, the Trinity River. “The Klamath River system is in deep distress.”