IMAGE: DAM ON KLAMATH RIVER
Jeff Barnard  /  AP file
This is one of the hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River in California and Oregon.
By AP Environmental Writer
updated 10/2/2006 2:07:24 PM ET 2006-10-02T18:07:24

A power company says it will continue to seek approval for its proposal to truck salmon around four dams on the Klamath River as part of a new operating license after losing a challenge of the science behind a federal mandate to build more expensive fish ladders.

"We are disappointed with many of the findings by the (judge) and we don't agree with them," PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme said from Portland. "Now we are going to continue to focus on the (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) licensing process.

"This isn't the end of the process. It's just another step."

In the first case of its kind under a new provision of federal energy law, PacifiCorp had challenged mandates from federal fisheries agencies that it restore free-swimming fish passage past the dams, screen turbines and devote a smaller proportion of the river to power production as a condition of a new 50-year operating license.

In findings filed late Wednesday by Administrative Law Judge Parlen McKenna of Alameda, Calif., the utility lost on 11 out of 14 issues of material fact. None of the points on which PacifiCorp prevailed applied directly to whether salmon could be restored to the upper river.

"This shows that the science was upheld. The process works," said Steve Edmondson, Northern California habitat supervisor for NOAA Fisheries, which with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed requiring PacifiCorp to build fish ladders over the four dams.

Debate over removing dams
Indian tribes, salmon fishermen, and conservation groups said they hoped the judge's findings would lead PacifiCorp to ultimately decide it is cheaper to remove the dams.

"If we are going to make major gains in protecting salmon, the Klamath is the place to start," said Craig Tucker, Klamath campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe. "It's because these dams are very poor power producers. If you compare the benefits they provide versus the social costs, the conclusion is clear these dams should be removed."

In addition, a California state agency reported last week that removing four dams would be less expensive than previously thought because sediments built up behind the dams contain very low levels of toxic leftovers from gold mining and farming.

Historically, the Klamath was the third biggest producer of salmon on the West Coast, after the Columbia and the Sacramento-San Joaquin systems, enjoying returns of 600,000 and 1 million fish a year. It now sees a small fraction of that and 70,000 adults died before spawning in a 2002 fish kill.

This year federal fisheries managers practically shut down commercial salmon fishing on the West Coast to protect Klamath chinook after the third straight year of poor returns. Expectations are that poor returns will continue for some years.

PacifiCorp has estimated it would cost $250 million to build fish ladders and make other improvements for salmon mandated by federal fisheries agencies, and would cut power production at the 150-megawatt facility in half. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has estimated that the federal fish mandates would leave PacifiCorp losing $28.7 million a year if it continues to operate the dams.

"We still have a tremendous amount of work to do to get people on the river focusing on restoration," said Steve Thompson, California-Nevada operations manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The (dam relicensing) process is a long process. We have an urgent need to get back to the river and get it restored."

Ladders or trucks still uncertain
Backed by McKenna's findings, NOAA Fisheries now must compare PacifiCorp's cheaper alternative against the more expensive proposal to build fish ladders, said Edmondson.

If it finds trucking salmon is just as beneficial to fish, NOAA Fisheries must endorse PacifiCorp's plan, he said. If NOAA Fisheries finds fish ladders are more beneficial, FERC has to accept that as a condition of the license.

McKenna found that salmon and steelhead historically spawned and reared in the reaches of the Klamath, Upper Klamath Lake, and tributaries before the first of the dams was built in 1917.

Habitat above the dams is good enough, and fish living below the dams are genetically suitable to repopulate the new areas, despite warm water in the summer, diseases in the water, and predators in the reservoirs, the judge found.

"The fact that anadromous fish currently complete life cycles through eight dams and reservoirs on the Columbia and Snake rivers, and historically completed life cycles through Upper Klamath lake, provides strong evidence that anadromous salmonids could also migrate through the reservoirs created by Project facilities," McKenna wrote.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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