By Jeff Barnard
AP environmental writer
GRANTS PASS, Ore. PacifiCorp said Wednesday it is willing to spend $300 million to build fish ladders and other means to get salmon over its Klamath River hydroelectric dams rather than tear them out and build a new generating plant to replace the power.
The Portland-based utility serving 1.6 million customers in six Western states said it already has a shortage of power, and feels it is better to hang onto the 150 megawatts produced by the Klamath dams than to face the unknown costs of managing sediment released by dam removal and rising prices of natural gas to generate replacement power.
Company spokesman Dave Kvamme said dam removal remained on the table in settlement talks with Indian Tribes, commercial fishermen, and conservation groups that want them gone as a way of restoring struggling salmon runs in the Klamath.
Federal fisheries agencies last week required the PacifiCorp to provide for salmon to swim freely over the four dams straddling the Oregon-California border as a condition of obtaining a new license to operate them for the next 30 to 50 years, raising pressure on PacifiCorp to consider the cheaper alternative of dam removal.
The river was once the third-biggest producer of salmon on the West Coast, but last year federal fisheries managers practically shut down commercial salmon fishing after the third straight year of poor returns of wild chinook.
Indian tribes, commercial salmon fishermen and conservation groups campaigning to remove the dams said PacifiCorp appeared to be staking out a stronger negotiating position for settlement talks which serve as an alternative to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licensing process.
A report for the California Energy Commission said PacifiCorp could save $101 million over the next 30 years by removing the dams and buying replacement power, rather than upgrading the dams and reducing power production to meet modern standards for fish protection.
Craig Tucker, Klamath campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said it will be up to state public utility commissions to determine if PacifiCorp can pass ladder costs on to customers.
"I guarantee you that if they make Warren Buffett pay for it, he's smart enough to remove the dams," said Tucker.
MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a subsidiary of billionaire investor Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., owns PacifiCorp.
Bill Fehrman, president of PacifiCorp Energy, said in a statement that the utility wanted to keep the dams to support the future addition of wind power, because both neither source releases greenhouse gases.
"The fact that the Klamath project is an emissions-free, renewable resource will make it more valuable to our customers in the future and reduce our overall carbon footprint," Fehrman said in a statement.
Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California salmon fishermen, noted that the dams provide less than 2 percent of PacifiCorp's generating capacity, and while they do not release greenhouse gases, they cause environmental damage to the river and salmon.
Tucker noted that the Oregon Public Utility Commission last month rejected plans by PacifiCorp to build two coal plants in to meet growing energy demands in Utah.
The commission said the proposal was not consistent with previously approved plans relying on short-term market purchases, renewable resources and conservation to meet increased demand.