Dam removal considered for Klamath

As salmon suffer, truce settles on river

  • J.C. Boyle Dam is one of four PacifiCorp dams on the Klamath River blocking access to 350 miles of salmon habitat. Now that the federal government has ordered the company to install expensive fish ladders on the dams -- and upgrade obsolete ladders like the one shown here -- the door has been opened to removing the dams altogether

    Jack Ellwanger/Klamath Restoration Council

Hundreds of fishing boats will sit idle this year as a result of a federal order drastically curbing the salmon season on a 700-mile stretch of the California and Oregon coast. The restrictions are meant to increase the scant number of Klamath River chinook expected to return this fall.

 For the third year in a row, chinook will return in numbers that are less than 5 percent of their historical abundance. A variety of problems, including poor water quality, disease and changing ocean conditions, have contributed to their decline, but low river flows have long been the central issue. Irrigation canals fed by the river have run full since 2002, and salmon have received little more than half the water federal biologists think necessary to avoid the risk of extinction (HCN, 6/23/03: Sound science goes sour).

Now, tribes will have to forgo subsistence and commercial fishing, and commercial and sportfishing industries stand to lose at least $150 million.

Farmers, fishermen, tribes and environmental groups have tussled over the Klamath for years, but this time they’re trying to stay out of the courtroom. Instead, they’re discussing a dramatic possibility: removing the river’s lower four dams, which block access to 350 miles of spawning habitat. It would be the country’s biggest dam removal project ever — and a major step toward healing the river that once supported the country’s third-largest salmon runs.

The dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, and Klamath farmers are surprisingly open to the idea. The lower four dams only provide hydropower, unlike the two upriver dams, which manage irrigation water and aren’t on the table for removal. Nearly 2,000 farmers use the bargain-rate power for irrigation pumps, but their power contracts expire this month and they’re looking for other sources, in effect loosening their grip on the dams.

For their part, river advocates have switched their focus away from irrigation diversions. "It’s a different playing field," says Chuck Bonham of Trout Unlimited. "This basin is dying for some solutions, and if we fall back into finger-pointing, nothing will happen."

 A matter of economics

PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme compares the dams to "a great old used car." They’re paid for, they don’t cost much to run, and they generate about $27 million a year in electricity, according to the California Energy Commission. But PacifiCorp’s 50-year federal license for the dams expires this month, and to renew it, the company will need to reduce the dams’ impacts on fish — one way or another. The dams’ future depends largely on what is cheaper for PacifiCorp: shelling out money to make the dams more salmon-friendly, or paying to take them down and replace the power they provide.

To renew its license, PacifiCorp must clear two costly hurdles. It has to address the high water temperatures and toxic algae blooms that state agencies say the dams help create. And to help salmon move freely up and down the river, the feds are requiring the utility to install or upgrade fish ladders and screens on each dam.

PacifiCorp estimates the fish passage modifications alone will cost $200 million, though the company has paid $300 million to upgrade three other dams. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, meanwhile, pegs the total cost of removal at $100 million.

Removing the dams and replacing the 151 megawatts they generate — less than 2 percent of PacifiCorp’s output — would likely require building new coal or natural gas power plants, says Kvamme. The company now gets most of its power from those sources.

PacifiCorp has agreed to decommission two Northwest dams in recent years. "We’re willing to consider just about any outcome," Kvamme says, "as long as it’s in our customers’ and shareholders’ interests."

A tricky solution

While upgrading the dams could solve many of the salmon’s problems, it leaves one of the fish’s deadliest foes untouched.

In the warm water below the lowest dam, two parasites flourish. In 2004, Ceratomyxa shasta killed as many as one-fifth of all young Klamath chinook. Another parasite, Parvicapsula minibicornis, infected most young chinook; its mortality rate isn’t yet known. If the dams are removed, colder, faster flows could give these parasites the boot.

Not everyone is willing to let the dams go, however: Siskiyou County, Calif., opposes dam removal because it collects $1.3 million a year in taxes from PacifiCorp, and some whitewater outfitters say they rely on the dams to keep flows consistent throughout the rafting season. Even if PacifiCorp decides on removal, bureaucratic red tape can keep doomed dams, like those on Washington’s Elwha River, standing for decades (HCN, 9/24/01: River of dreams).

To make removal more palatable, Klamath stakeholders have asked for $200 million of a $50 billion California public works bond. That money would help offset costs for PacifiCorp customers, farmers and local governments. The bond, however, won’t make it to a statewide ballot until at least November, and there’s no guarantee it will include money for the Klamath.

If the negotiations don’t settle on dam removal, many say the region could return to business as usual: more disastrous salmon seasons and bitter courtroom battles. Most of those involved say they are tired of fighting — but they’re realistic about the prospects for peace: "One day, I think we could do something amazing here," says Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents most Klamath farmers. "The next day, I’m hit by the magnitude and complexity of it all, and I think, ‘This is going to take forever.’ "

The author is an HCN intern.

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