Rex Cozzalio of Hornbrook is adamant that removing the dams along the river flowing past his home won’t improve conditions for salmon.
But stakeholders in the contentious Klamath Basin aim to remove the dams as part of an agreement to help salmon, bring stability to irrigation supplies and curb debates over water.
“They are going to devastate the Klamath River,” said Cozzalio, 57, who has lived on 30 riverside acres all his life.
Siskiyou County leaders share Cozzalio’s opinion on keeping the dams. While more than 40 groups — farmers and ranchers, American Indian tribes and environmentalists — support removal, the county that’s home to three of the dams wants them to stay. Last year the groups signed agreements to explore dam removal, with demolition beginning in 2020 if it’s determined to be best for salmon.
“We think the solution is to put fish ladders around them and keep the dams,” said Jim Cook, a Siskiyou County supervisor.
PacifiCorp, the Portland, Ore.-based company that owns the dams, isn’t specifically supporting their removal, but it is trying to find a solution that will cost its ratepayers the least amount of money, said Art Sassie, company spokesman. He said the cost of removing the dams would be less than building ladders or other systems to move fish around them.
“The agreement has the framework for dam removal, and we are in support of that agreement,” Sassie said.
PacifiCorp is weighing whether to keep the dams or add improvements to allow salmon to swim from the Pacific Ocean to spawning grounds along the Klamath River and its tributaries in Siskiyou County. The dams block salmon from 300 miles of spawning habitat, according to reports.
Removing the dams and funding restoration efforts likely would cost $450 million, said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance. The company would pay $200 million, Palmer said, and $250 million possibly would come from the state’s 2012 water bond. PacifiCorp has estimated that building fish ladders would cost at least $460 million, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The dams turn the river into a string of warm-water pools that breed toxic algae and fish-killing bacteria, said Craig Tucker, spokesman for the Karuk Tribe. The tribe, which holds rights to fish for salmon along the Klamath River, is among the groups that signed the agreements.
“We’ve been fighting to get to those dams out for years,” Tucker said.
The U.S. Interior secretary is set to decide by March 2012 whether to go ahead with the dam removal or not, The Associated Press reported.
Cozzalio — whose family has been on the Klamath for four generations and lives near Iron Gate Dam — isn’t convinced that removing the dams would revive the river. He said salmon struggled to maintain a run up the river because of low summer flows when the dam wasn’t there to regulate water.
“Before Iron Gate went in, I could walk across the river in midsummer and not get my feet wet. I’d just hop from rock to rock,” he said.
Power companies built the dams along the Klamath River from 1908 to 1962. Iron Gate Dam, the tallest on the river, at 173 feet, was the last finished.
The dams produce 150 megawatts, enough power for 70,000 homes.
That’s enough, said Siskiyou County supervisor Cook, to power most of Siskiyou, Del Norte and Humboldt counties. And the dams provide flood control.
Cook said he understands why tribes and commercial fishermen want to build a better salmon run.
But, like Cozzalio, he said he doesn’t think removing the dams would make that a reality.
He said the county didn’t sign the agreements because the focus was on dam removal and not other options.
“There are other options,” Cook said.
Dam removal looks to be the best option, said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. The group is among those that signed the agreements.
He said the stakeholders are meeting regularly, gathering last month in Redding and planning to do so again in Eureka in February.
Spain said Siskiyou County’s participation has been limited to attempts to stop dam removal.
“They are throwing every barrier they can in the process,” Spain said.