PacifiCorp must build new fish ladders and make other modifications so salmon can swim freely past four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River if it wants a new license to produce electricity, federal fisheries agencies said Tuesday.
The ladders, turbine screens and fish bypasses are estimated to cost about $300 million and will be requirements of any new operating license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, boosting pressure on the utility to remove the dams as a cheaper alternative.
Removing the dams would open access to 350 miles of spawning habitat blocked for nearly a century in what was once the West Coast's third most productive salmon river basin, but whose mounting struggles triggered a near shutdown last summer of commercial salmon fishing off Oregon and California.
Bolstered by an administrative law judge's findings that the science was sound behind a proposal last spring to require ladders and screens, fisheries agencies of the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Interior filed documents with the commission that flatly rejected PacifiCorp's cheaper proposal to truck fish around the dams.
Under federal law, the two agencies set the fisheries requirements for the long-term licenses the energy commission grants for operating dams such as those on the Klamath.
The Klamath dams are at the end of a 50-year license, and a renewal is expected to have a term of up to 50 years.
"We are committed to the conservation and protection of fishery resources in the Klamath River Basin," Rod McInnis, southwest regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, the Department of Commerce agency that oversees salmon restoration, said in a statement.
The fish passage mandates came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries.
Steve Thompson, California-Nevada operations manager for Fish and Wildlife, said the dam modifications are necessary to "provide important new conservation benefits for people and for the fish of the Klamath River."
PacifiCorp is a long way from making a decision on whether to remove the dams, and hopes a settlement can be reached with the various agencies and parties involved in relicensing, said PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme.
Steve Rothert of American Rivers said removing the four dams would be the biggest single river restoration project in the nation to date, and perhaps be the most effective. Meanwhile, seven other hydroelectric dams in Oregon and Washington — two owned by PacifiCorp — are to be removed in the next few years.
Warm water still a problem
Removing the dams would still leave a major problem with warm water polluted by agricultural runoff and algae flowing out of Upper Klamath Lake, the primary source for the river, said University of California at Davis professors Jeffrey Mount, a geomorphologist, and Peter Moyle, a fish biologist. Both served on a National Research Council team that reviewed efforts to restore fish in the Klamath Basin.
However, if the dams are removed, salmon could be reintroduced to the upper basin within a few years, increasing incentives to restore habitat degraded by grazing and logging, Moyle added.
The Klamath requirements come as the governors of Oregon and California have called for a summit, tentatively set for mid-February, to consider removing the dams and using environmental restoration to help resolve bitter disputes over water in the Klamath Basin.
Indian tribes, commercial fishermen and conservation groups have pressed for removing the dams — which NOAA Fisheries has said would be best for salmon — and PacifiCorp has said it would be willing to remove the dams if its customers don't have to pay more for electricity.
"Now it's time for PacifiCorp President Bill Fehrman to make good on his commitment to protect his ratepayers from higher costs and simply remove these fish-killing dams," Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the Karuk Tribe, said in a statement.
The federal energy commission has estimated that PacifiCorp would lose $28.7 million a year operating the dams under an earlier, and similar, version of the fish passage requirements.
PacifiCorp's Kvamme said the utility was disappointed, but not surprised, that the agencies rejected their proposal, even after it was amended. That amended proposal agreed to installing fish screens on the dams, building one new fish ladder over the J.C. Boyle Dam, and depositing some fish in river reaches between the dams.
PacifiCorp believes that two of the dams, Copco I and Iron Gate, are too high for effective fish ladders, Kvamme said.
Commercial fishing curbed
Salmon have been struggling in the Klamath for decades from the effects of the dams, gold mining, logging, grazing, water withdrawals for irrigation and pollution from agricultural runoff.
After the third straight year of weak fall chinook returns, federal fisheries managers practically shut down commercial salmon fishing on the West Coast to minimize the loss of Klamath fish, costing fishermen $16 million.
A drought in 2001 triggered a cutoff of water to about 1,000 farms on a federal irrigation project to preserve flows in the Klamath River for threatened coho salmon. When irrigation was restored, some 70,000 adult chinook died from gill rot diseases spread by low, warm water conditions.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which decides whether to grant a new operating license, had agreed in preliminary findings with PacifiCorp's proposal to truck fish around the dams. But the requirements of Fish and Wildlife and of NOAA Fisheries take precedence. A final environmental impact statement on a new license is expected this summer. PacifiCorp would then have two to eight years to carry out the fish passage requirements.
Based in Portland, PacifiCorp is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, which is controlled by billionaire Warren Buffett.
The utility serves 1.6 million customers in six Western states. It is seeking a new operating license for the Iron Gate, J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1 and Copco No. 2 dams, which straddle the Oregon-California border on the Klamath River and produce about 150 megawatts of power, enough to serve 70,000 customers. The power represents 1.7 percent of PacifiCorp's total output.