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Klamath dam reports conflict

by Tim Riosm, Siskiyou Daily News, October 11, 2006 

SISKIYOU COUNTY — Mimicking the Klamath River itself, PacifiCorp’s dam saga took a series of twists and turns recently with a draft environmental impact analysis filed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a California Coastal Conservancy report on sediment, and a judge’s ruling on the issue.

PacifiCorp is currently lobbying to renew a 50-year operating license from FERC to operate Klamath River dams in southern Oregon and Northern California.

The dams produce enough electricity for 70,000 customers and 2 percent of PacifiCorp's production.

Federal agencies told FERC earlier this year that PacifiCorp must install fish ladders, fish screens and reduce the amount of water diverted to turbines to help struggling salmon return to the Klamath River.

But Pacificorp is clinging to a 2005 federal Energy Policy Act.

The 2005 Act lets dam operators challenge conditions to protect wildlife set by other federal agencies through a hearing before an administrative law judge.

It also allows dam operators to suggest alternative environmental measures, and requires the judge to approve those measures if they are “adequate” and will be less expensive or allow for greater electricity production.

Acting on the 2005 Act, PacifiCorp said it will continue to seek approval for an alternate “trap and haul” program — a proposal to truck salmon around four dams on the Klamath as a condition of a new 50-year operating license.

PacifiCorp made the assertion after unsuccessfully challenging the science behind the federal mandate to build more expensive fish ladders.

In findings filed on September 27 by administrative law judge Parlen L. McKenna of Alameda, Calif., the utility lost on 11 out of 14 issues.

Judge McKenna found that salmon and steelhead historically spawned and matured 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.

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.

FERC has estimated that the federal fish mandates would leave PacifiCorp losing $28.7 million a year if it continues to operate the dams.

Concerns about the toxicity of sediment build-up behind the dams was addressed by a recent study filed by the California State Coastal Conservancy.

The CSCC study found that removal of the dams would be less expensive than originally forecast, and would be a better solution to the health of the Klamath River’s ailing fishing industry.

According to the study, sediments built up behind the dams contain very low levels of toxic leftovers from gold mining, farming and plywood manufacturing.

Investigations were conducted into the volume as well as physical and chemical characteristics of the sediment by collecting 45 sediment samples at 26 locations in Iron Gate, Copco 1 and JC Boyle reservoirs.

Of the 27 sediment samples analyzed, only one sample contained concentrations exceeding test screening criteria. The study found that no sediment samples contained metals, pesticides, herbicides, PCBs, DDT or dioxins at concentrations above screening levels.

The only contaminants detected above screening levels were ethylbenzene and xylenes. The report describes these as common volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) found in oils and gasoline, which likely came from spills from recreational boats.

Also according to the study, the volume of sediment stored behind the three reservoirs was greater than previously expected.

The report concluded, however, that even under the worst case scenario, the natural erosion of the sediments would not pose a flood risk downstream.

Previous studies estimated a total of approximately 14 million cubic yards stored in the reservoirs. The study released today estimates 20 million cubic yards is trapped by the dams.

The study estimates that only 3 million cubic yards of sediment would be eroded downstream of Iron Gate because much of it would sit beyond the reach of the restored river channel.

The report concluded that the sediment would not have to be mechanically excavated and could erode naturally downstream without causing a risk of contamination or flooding.


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