Federal wildlife agencies demanded Wednesday that the Klamath River’s imperiled wild salmon be given a way to pass four towering hydroelectric dams that for nearly a century have blocked the waterway’s upper spawning grounds.
The owner of the dams, PacifiCorp of Portland, Ore., could face a costly decision: Should it spend up to $175 million to erect very long fish ladders, or should it abandon the dams and undertake the nation’s largest removal project?
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal wildlife agencies presented their demands in response to PacifiCorp’s application to renew its operating license for the dams.
The structures -- combined with diversions for irrigation, polluted runoff from ranching, logging and other factors -- have caused Klamath fish populations to plummet. Salmon runs have fallen so low in the last three years that federal regulators next week will decide whether to recommend that the annual fishing season be canceled.
PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire financial guru Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has in recent years agreed to demolish three other hydroelectric dams, including a 150-foot-tall concrete structure on the White Salmon River in southwest Washington.
But that undertaking would be dwarfed by the scope of removing PacifiCorp’s four dams on the Klamath, where worries over salmon have hurt farmers, whose irrigation supply was slashed in 2001. Also, commercial fishermen could lose this year’s prized chinook catch.
“Something of this magnitude in terms of the number of dams and the sheer size is unprecedented,” said Kelly Catlett, a policy advocate with Friends of the River in Sacramento. “This would be in a league of its own.”
Company officials said they would consider appealing the demands of the wildlife agencies but remain optimistic that an agreement could be reached in talks that have been underway for more than a year with government agencies, Native American tribes, fishermen, farmers and other groups with a stake in the health of the Klamath River.
“We think the settlement process is a better way to go,” said Dave Kvamme, a PacifiCorp spokesman. “You can get creative. You can take risks.”
Steve Thompson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s state operations officer, said those negotiations -- conducted biweekly in closed-door sessions -- are looking at potential remedies to the Klamath’s myriad environmental problems, from its Oregon headwaters to where it pours into the Pacific north of Eureka, Calif.
“A settlement could tackle many more issues than just dams,” Thompson said. But, he added, PacifiCorp probably would have to choose “what’s the best business decision for them” to ensure that fish can reach the more than 350 miles of historic habitat in the river’s upper basin.
The natural migration of salmon to Upper Klamath Lake and beyond into tributaries fed by the snowmelt of Oregon’s Cascade Range was blocked by the completion of the first of the dams in 1918. Since then, half a dozen other dams have been erected on the Klamath, with the last of them -- the earthen-sided Iron Gate Dam in California -- the tallest of them all, rising 173 feet above the river.
Iron Gate and three other hydropower dams -- J.C. Boyle and Copco 1 and 2 -- are being considered for alteration or elimination because they pose the biggest barrier to fish. The three other dams on the river are small enough to be surmounted by fish ladders.
Critics of the four hydroelectric structures say they have combined with water diversions for agriculture and runoff from farms, logging and cattle grazing to brew environmental problems that threaten the river’s salmon.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is expected to decide early next year on whether to issue a new license to operate the dams.
Elimination of the four dams and the 151 megawatts of power they produce wouldn’t come easy. The cost of demolition and river restoration has been estimated at $100 million by environmentalists and the tribes, but could climb higher if unforeseen obstacles emerged.
Some backers of dam decommissioning have proposed that the idea be sweetened for PacifiCorp with public funds and are pushing to include Klamath dam removal money in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed infrastructure bond measures.
“Dam removal is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a big piece,” said Craig Tucker, a policy analyst with Northern California’s Karuk Tribe, which has seen its Klamath catch nearly disappear. “There’s no way you can conclude that the 151 megawatts those dams produce are more valuable to society than salmon.”
Two other tribes -- the Hoopa and Yurok -- fish the river as part of their cultural heritage. Commercial fishermen estimate that the loss of this year’s chinook salmon season could cost coastal economies $150 million.
The Klamath was once the nation’s third-most productive salmon river, with up to 1.2 million salmon and steelhead trout joining an epic annual migration to spawn. Today, the river’s coho salmon are on the endangered species list, and its chinook salmon are at record lows.
PacifiCorp’s Kvamme said the company remained unconvinced that salmon would survive in the watershed’s upper reaches.
Some university experts share that concern. Upper Klamath Lake has grown saturated with phosphorus runoff from the Cascades’ volcanic slopes, compromising water quality. In addition, upstream tributaries are sullied by agricultural runoff and other pollution.
“My biggest worry is that expectations about the positive impacts of Klamath dam removal on salmon and steelhead may be raised too high,” said Peter Moyle, a UC Davis professor of fish biology who helped look at the Klamath for a National Academy of Sciences study.
Meanwhile, the power the dams produce, though less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s overall production of more than 8,000 megawatts, is still enough for 70,000 households, Kvamme noted. To replace that clean electricity, he said, would require burning 360,000 tons of coal or 5 million cubic feet of natural gas.
But critics say the power isn’t worth the environmental and economic costs. A study by the California Energy Commission found that losing electricity from the dams would not significantly harm regional power production. The National Academy of Sciences and the California Water Resources Control Board have recommended a full evaluation of dam removal.
Other options include catching fish and hauling them around the dams, but that effort has not been very effective on the Columbia River and Northwest streams.
Construction of fish ladders over the dams could prove formidable. The ladders would have to step an exhausting 120 times to top Iron Gate Dam and run for nearly two miles. Biologists question if salmon and steelhead trout would even use the ladders.