Agencies rule dams need fish ladders

January 31, 2007 12:00 am

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

Federal agencies have repeated their calls for PacifiCorp to install fish ladders on four dams along the Klamath River in order for the Portland, Ore.-based power company to continue operating its hydroelectric project.

The conditions come as PacifiCorp seeks to renew a 50-year license for the dams. While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would issue the new licence, the Federal Power Act requires decisions from the U.S. departments of Interior and Commerce.

In preliminary recommendations last year, branches of those agencies — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service — recommended that PacifiCorp install fish ladders on all four dams. The goal aims to help adult spawning salmon reach upstream waters and let juveniles safely migrate downstream, without getting caught in turbines.

PacifiCorp had opposed the measures, seeking an administrative law judge's opinion on the proposal that would cost about $300 million to complete. An administrative law judge upheld the federal provisions last year in Sacramento.

The federal agencies reiterated the calls for fish ladders and screens in a massive document released Tuesday outlining terms and conditions that PacifiCorp must meet to continue running the dams.

"It looks fantastic," Dave Hillemeier, fisheries program manager for the Yurok Tribe, said of the rules. "This is a great milestone for the Klamath River."

Tom Schlosser, an attorney representing the Hoopa Tribe, pointed to the power of Tuesday's report.

"They're not recommendations, they're requirements," said Schlosser, a lawyer with Morisset, Schlosser, Jozwiak & McGaw out of Seattle, Wash. "They're binding."

Next steps

Options for PacifiCorp include accepting the rules, appealing them or opting to remove the dams.

"We haven't made up our minds yet," said spokesman Dave Kvamme of the company's next steps.

PacifiCorp is waiting for a final environmental impact statement from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, due sometime this year.

PacifiCorp representatives had wanted the conditions from the other federal agencies to factor in alternatives that the company proposed late last year. Those included installing a fish ladder at the J.C. Boyle dam and screens on all four dams to protect fish from turbines. The plan also aimed to trap and truck salmon around dams and reintroduce fish throughout the project area.

"We're not surprised, but we're disappointed," Kvamme said of Tuesday's report.

Fish ladders on Copco and Iron Gate dams will likely fail, since they would each need to extend about half a mile, too high for fish to climb, Kvamme said. The company's proposals offered various solutions to restore the waterway.

"Instead of investing all your money into fish ladders that probably won't work," he said.

Hillemeier rejected that argument, saying that the federal agencies would not have prescribed ineffective measures.

"The ball's in PacifiCorp's court now. We're hoping they'll do the right thing and remove the four dams," Hillemeier said.

‘Anything is possible'

Tribe members, environmentalists and fishermen, among others, have complained that the dams cause water to stagnate and breed toxins. The structures also drastically raise and lower water levels during peak times to generate power. The changes leave small fish stranded on land and wash away sediment that salmon need as habitat.

The groups want the dams removed as a way to bolster the river's poor water quality and failing salmon fishery. The latest documents prompt a move in that direction, Hillemeier said.

In December, a report from the California Energy Commission estimated that removing the dams would prove cheaper than installing the fish ladders and screens that federal agencies have called for. Removing the dams and replacing the power for 30 years from another source would total about $277 million, the report said. Installing fish ladders and other measures would cost up to $470 million over the same time period.

PacifiCorp representatives have disagreed with those estimates, saying that no one knows the final costs of dam removal and the effects of releasing the sediment stored behind the structures.

Whether PacifiCorp obeys the requirements or removes the dams, Hillemeier expects the river's fish to eventually travel further along the Klamath River.

"Sounds like we'll get fish to the upper basin one way or another," he said.

Other options for PacifiCorp could come from private settlement talks that the company has participated in with different groups.

"In the settlement process, anything is possible," Kvamme said.

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