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A time to deliver water solutions

By Tom Philp - January 14, 2007, Sacramento Bee

Story appeared in FORUM section, Page E1. 2nd 1/2 is regarding Klamath, 1st half Salton Sea.

THE HAMMER: The state had a legislative deadline to have come up with a Salton Sea restoration plan by the end of 2006. Schwarzenegger's team at the water resources department is a little behind schedule, but working feverishly. Once the administration's solution is unveiled, it will be up to the Legislature to implement the plan or amend it.

"I do think we are heading toward a political and technical solution," said Kim Delfino, state program director for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.

THE CONTROVERSY: A dam. And the price tag.

There seems to be general agreement that the southern edge of the sea should be reconfigured with a system of concentric canals that create shallow habitat for birds. The question is on the northern end. That would be the site of the permanent "sea." The question is how big to make it. The bigger the sea, the bigger the dam, the more water it needs. All this would mean less water for the birds in the shallows to the south.

Nothing is small about the price tags for any of the alternatives. Of the options being studied by the state, upfront costs for the changes range from $2.3 billion to $5.8 billion. That doesn't count the annual costs to maintain the new and improved sea, which could exceed $100 million. Given that there is no big pot of money sitting around for the solution, the Salton Sea will have to compete against other needs.

"There isn't a solution where you build this one thing, and everything is fixed," Snow said. "It is more of a long-term investment strategy."


THE PROBLEM: The 250-mile river through southern Oregon and Northern California used to produce one of the Pacific Ocean's largest salmon runs. No more. Its coho salmon run is officially threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The National Marine Fisheries Service curtailed commercial fishing off the coast of California and Oregon to protect the few salmon destined to return to the Klamath River. Many reasons for the depleted salmon runs are suspected, such as years of logging along the river's banks and large diversions of water for agriculture.

More than a century ago, Congress began approving dams and aqueducts that have altered the Klamath. Four of the dams, owned by PacifiCorp, a private electricity provider, have cut off about half of the historic spawning grounds for the salmon. The dams were built to produce electricity -- about 167 megawatts, enough for about 70,000 homes -- not for water supply.

THE HAMMER: Federal licenses for the four dams have expired and need to be renewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC can't order the dams to be demolished. However, the commission can impose costly new requirements: more fish ladders, more monitoring, less power production.

THE CONTROVERSY: Dam removal versus dam modifications.

A study for the California Energy Commission concluded that PacifiCorp could save money by tearing down the dams rather than building the fish ladders and other modifications that FERC has been reviewing.

"The more analysis we do, the better it looks for dam removal," said Craig Tucker, who is coordinating a campaign by the Karuk Indian Tribe to tear down the dams.

PacifiCorp -- although willing to discuss dam removal in private negotiations with the tribe, environmental groups, farmers and wildlife agencies -- disputes the notion that removing the dams is the cheapest course. "The dams currently have more than 20 million cubic yards of sediment behind them," said Dave Kvamme, a spokesman for PacifiCorp. "I don't know how you get a permit to remove that kind of stuff."

FERC is on a timetable to issue its relicensing decision later this year, but a negotiated settlement seems to be the goal.

"We're heavily engaged in discussions with all the communities to come up with a package that works," Snow said.

Will the dams come down?

"Our customers' interests need to be protected," Kvamme said. Translation: Somebody needs to come up with money to make it happen. The Klamath River hardly has the political world's undivided attention. It is just another water issue on a crowded table. And it's a gamble that dam removal alone would revive the salmon runs.

"Under the present situation, it is not at all certain whether taking down those dams will solve the major problems of the Klamath," said Moyle, who has studied the river on behalf of the National Research Council. But something is bound to happen. For FERC, which must decide on a relicensing plan, doing nothing is not an option.

Welcome to the club.

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