Dams cause toxic algae, groups claim

March 14, 2007 11:00 pm

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

PacifiCorp's dams cause toxic algae blooms in the that California laws could better regulate for the health of the public and the waterway, according to the Karuk Tribe and conservation groups.

The parties have asked the state's regional water quality control board to force the Portland, Ore.-based power company to submit discharge reports on toxins and pollutants released from large reservoirs behind Copco and Iron Gate dams, located just south of the Oregon border.

The petition also calls on the state agency to set limits on the pollutants from the reservoir, possibly by requiring PacifiCorp to secure a discharge permit.

"Many of the dams and their resulting reservoirs are toxic, blue-green algae factories," states the petition from the tribe, the Klamath River keeper and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

"By damming rivers that are high in nutrients, impounding them in reservoirs, then warming those waters in a quiescent environment, dam operators like PacifiCorp have created a perfect environment for the growth and proliferation of blue-green algae."

The blue-green algae Microcystis aeruginosa produces a level of microcystin toxin in the reservoirs that exceeds standards by the World Health Organization, the petition states. Human contact with the toxin can cause gastrointestinal problems, nausea, vomiting, liver failure and other health problems.

The state board will consider the petition at a meeting today in Eureka.

The request marks a first for the regional board, according to Tom Dunbar, a senior water resources control engineer with the agency.

"It's definitely something new," Dunbar said.

The toxic algae conditions, though, are not. They have likely existed for years before the Karuk Tribe's water monitoring tests revealed them in 2004. And PacifiCorp knew of the problem for many years, according to the petition.

The request comes as PacifiCorp seeks to renew a federal license to continue operating four dams on the Klamath River.

Toxic blue-green algae has appeared throughout the length of the waterway that starts at the Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon and empties into the Pacific Ocean in Klamath, Calif., said PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme.

"There's a misconception that toxic forms of blue-green algae are not found above our project," Kvamme said, noting its discovery at the large, shallow lake that sends water downstream. "Requiring us to be somehow accountable for the water quality that reaches us doesn't seem like it's a reasonable thing to do."

The highest levels, though, appear in the two large reservoirs, said Kevin McKernan, environmental program director for the Yurok Tribe. And the change could force better monitoring of reservoir waters that affect the rest of the river, its aquatic life and humans.

The Yurok Tribe supports the petition as a way to improve the river's water quality —a necessary step no matter what results from the dam licensing process, McKernan said.

The long licensing process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could remove the dams or approve their continued operation, along with conditions that help fish migrate past the obstacles.

But the poor water quality needs to improve now, advocates agreed.

"It may be 15 years or more before the dams come down. What are we going to do in the interim?" said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Because this is going to be a continuing problem."

The toxic algae thrives in the warm, stagnant reservoir waters at the Iron Gate and Copco dams that show higher levels of toxic algae than in the rest of the river, according to the petition.

"It's a pollutant, no question about it," Spain said. "The state has the authority to act and it should do so."

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