Indians Take Fight Against Klamath Dams to Scotland

Times Staff Writer

A delegation from some of California’s poorest Indian tribes leaves for Scotland today to urge a multinational company to modify six dams that tribal biologists say have contributed to a 90% decline in salmon on the Klamath River.

Along with environmentalists and North Coast commercial fishermen, the 18 tribal representatives plan to dramatize their concerns at the July 23 annual general stockholders meeting of ScottishPower. A U.S. subsidiary of that company owns and operates the Klamath River dams that have cut off the fish -- on which the tribes have depended for generations -- from their upriver spawning grounds.

The dams, tribal leaders contend, have kept migratory fish out of 350 miles of upriver habitat while producing oxygen-robbing algae and unnaturally raising and lowering the river to the detriment of the fish.


The tribes, which filed a $1-billion lawsuit against ScottishPower this spring asking for compensation, hope to use the trip to publicly pressure a firm that bills itself as environmentally responsible.

Members of the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa and Klamath tribes plan to dig a fire pit near the corporation’s Edinburgh headquarters, smoke Klamath salmon over the embers and share it with stockholders.

“We’re going to take this fight right to the boardroom, right to the corporate headquarters, right to their shareholders,” said Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the Karuk Tribe of California. “We will go to the ends of the earth for the fish.”

The tribes and their allies have lobbied PacifiCorp for two years to do something about the dams -- install fish ladders so salmon can crest the smaller of the dams, and perhaps even demolish the biggest of the six, the 173-foot-tall Iron Gate Dam.

But officials at Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp, ScottishPower’s U.S. subsidiary, say that removing any of the dams could backfire, because they help improve downstream water quality by letting upriver particulates and farm pollution settle in the reservoirs behind the structures. The company warns that fish moving upstream of the dams could face hazardous water conditions.

“The challenge of the Klamath River is: There really isn’t one silver-bullet solution,” said Jon Coney, a PacifiCorp spokesman. “The tribes and their allies are free to go to Scotland. Our senior management is paying close attention. But the negotiations are here in the U.S.”

The trip to Scotland coincides with a renewal of tensions between the alliance of Indians, commercial fishermen and environmentalists, and a common adversary: upstream farmers in the Klamath Basin, a 200,000-acre swath of farmland straddling the Oregon-California border that is irrigated with water diverted from the Klamath.

A congressional hearing on issues related to the Endangered Species Act is planned today in Klamath Falls, Ore., center of a 2001 water crisis that outraged farmers and prompted the Bush administration to intervene on their behalf. Irrigation water had been shut off for months by federal regulators intent on helping endangered suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon in the river.

Meanwhile, drought conditions and low flows continue to take a toll on what was once the West Coast’s third most productive salmon-bearing river. This spring, a parasite killed more than half the river’s juvenile salmon, stirring fear of a repeat of a die-off three years ago that left 33,000 adult salmon carcasses littering the banks.

Though biologists continue to wrangle over how to address the river’s ills, there is consensus that the fish decline springs from numerous factors, including the dams, low flows, warmer water, irrigation diversions, pollution, silt from logged hillsides, natural predators and a century of unfettered commercial fishing.

The series of dams dividing the lower and upper river have come under scrutiny lately because PacifiCorp must apply to the federal government for a new operating license by 2006. If nothing is done to aid the fish, the tribes say, they will try to persuade the government to block the license renewal.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix this problem,” said Craig Tucker of Friends of the River, which is helping fund the trip to Scotland. “The troubles caused by the dams need to be told.”

The dams were erected over more than 50 years that ended with the completion of Iron Gate in 1962. Their sole purpose is to provide power --and not much of that. The 151 megawatts they generate represent less than 2% of the electricity produced by PacifiCorp. But the firm considers it an important part of its power arsenal, providing energy during hot summer afternoons as air conditioners click on.

The California Energy Commission, however, contends that loss of the dam’s electricity would not significantly undermine the region’s power supply. The state Water Resources Control Board recommends a study of dam removal, as does a California Fish and Game Commission team studying salmon recovery strategies.

To tribes like the Karuk, the dams are a prime culprit in the decline of the fish.

Along the river’s boulder-strewn banks in California’s far north, the Karuk have long clung to the ways of their forebears. Herded into military encampments during the Gold Rush, most escaped to return to their homelands.

Today, many in the tribe of 3,400 live in poverty. The Karuk don’t have a casino and control only a fraction of their ancestral territory -- an area that was almost as large as Rhode Island. About 65% are unemployed, and many Karuk are still without electricity and phones.

What they have are the fish: salmon and steelhead, eel-like Pacific lamprey and hulking green sturgeon. With dip nets in hand like their ancestors, tribal fishermen still work the Klamath’s frothy pools when the salmon start running. As with neighboring tribes, the Karuk’s culture, ceremonial life and subsidence revolve around the fish.

Once, more than 1 million salmon returned to spawn every year. But now the migrating salmon have dwindled by 90%, according to tribal biologists. The spring run of Chinook salmon has all but disappeared. The sturgeon are teetering on the brink and stocks of lamprey, once so plentiful and prized for their nutritious meat, have plummeted.

“Back in the day, we had 70 miles of river and more than 100 village sites, each with its own spot to fish,” said Ron Reed, the Karuk’s cultural biologist. “Today we’re left with a handful of fishermen at Ishi Pishi.”

Ishi Pishi Falls -- a steep section of Klamath rapids near Orleans -- is among the Karuks’ most sacred places. It lies in the shadow of a sheered-off mountain, dubbed Sugarloaf by white people but known as Auich to the Karuk, who believe it is where the first people came from.

As salmon pause in calm pools below the falls before making another mad rush up the whitewater, tribal fishermen like Reed capture them with nets lashed to narrow oak poles bent into oval hoops. After the fish are dragged into the shallows, another tribe member clubs them with a wooden mallet.

Walking to the edge of the rapids one day recently, Reed pointed to a cuff of smooth midstream rock, a clear sheet of water cascading around the top. To him it is a signpost. If there is water boiling across that rock, he said, there will be fish in the hole behind it.

“There’s a lot of technique and understanding to this,” said Reed, his hair drawn up in a ponytail. “But there’s very few fish anymore.”

PacifiCorp spent more than $10 million on environmental and engineering studies during the process of drafting its license-renewal application.

Spokesman Coney said the problem was that the Klamath was a river upside down. The water of most tributaries is cleanest at its source, but loads up with particulates and pollution as it runs to the river’s mouth. The Klamath, in contrast, is dirtier in its upper reaches because of volcanic sediments and pollution from uses such as cattle ranching and farming.

Studies by the firm indicate that the dams, about halfway down the run to the ocean, act as settling ponds, producing cleaner water for the last half of the journey, Coney said.

The dam operator has found allies in Klamath Basin farmers.

Dan Keppen, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Assn., said razing the dams might prove “a terrible experiment” that would sully water quality in the lower river. Sending fish around the dams and into the compromised water upstream could amount to a death sentence, he said.

“What we’re seeing is a classic example of oversimplification and a whole lot of myth-making by the tribes and their allies,” Keppen said. “I’m very skeptical that taking out those dams is going to help the way those protesters going to Scotland are saying.”