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Judge is asked to lift fish ladder demands
Utility wants to trap salmon and truck them downstream

GRANTS PASS, Ore. - Using a new provision of federal energy law for the first time, PacifiCorp is asking a judge to let it off the hook on building fish ladders to help salmon over four Klamath River hydroelectric dams.

A weeklong trial began Monday before a federal administrative law judge in Sacramento, Calif., and a ruling is expected next month that promises to be a key factor in whether the Portland-based utility decides to keep operating the dams, which are blamed by fishermen, American Indian tribes and conservation groups for contributing to declining salmon returns to the Klamath River in Northern California.

Diminishing returns

Three straight years of low returns of wild chinook to the Klamath led federal fisheries managers this summer to shut down most commercial salmon fishing along 700 miles of California and Oregon coastline. The Commerce Department has estimated the catch this year will be just 16 percent of average, with direct losses of $16 million to the 1,500 fishermen in the area.

Administrative Law Judge Parlen McKenna will decide whether federal agencies were justified in prescribing that as a condition of getting a new operating license for the dams, PacifiCorp build fish ladders over them, install fish screens on turbines and leave more water in the river, rather than running it through turbines.

Based on the judge's findings of fact, the agencies will revise their prescriptions for the dams next year.

The utility estimates the changes would cost about $250 million, reduce energy output, make the dam project inoperable at some times of the year and "severely reduce the project's value for producing electricity," with no assurances that salmon will re-establish themselves in 300 miles of river blocked for a century, said Pacifi­Corp spokesman Dave Kvamme from Sacramento.

Arguing it would be equally beneficial to salmon but much less expensive, the utility has proposed trapping salmon and trucking them around the dams to see whether they can re-establish themselves. The cost is estimated at $100 million.

"If the agencies' terms and conditions (for protecting salmon) stick, that project is going to be a lot more expensive to relicense all of a sudden," said Craig Tucker, Klamath Campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe in Orleans, Calif. "Then there will be a different economic equation for PacifiCorp."

At the same time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is processing PacifiCorp's application for a new operating license, the utility is in talks with Indian tribes, conservation groups and fishermen to find a solution agreeable to all sides, rather than seeing what the government will demand.

Buffett company

PacifiCorp is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. of Des Moines, Iowa, which is controlled by billionaire Warren Buffett. It serves 1.6 million customers in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.

The four dams - Iron Gate, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and J.C. Boyle - straddle the Oregon-California border and produce 150 megawatts, enough electricity for 70,000 customers. That amounts to about 2 percent of PacifiCorp's production.

Until now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries could impose prescriptions on power companies to help fish and wildlife, which sometimes led utilities to conclude it was cheaper to remove aging dams rather than to make them safer for fish.

But the Energy Policy Act enacted last year gave utilities the chance to challenge those prescriptions before an administrative law judge in the course of relicensing, rather than waiting until the end of the process.

The PacifiCorp case is the first to go to trial under the new provisions, Kvamme said.

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Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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