HALF MOON BAY Last summer, local fishermen like Mike Hudson saw their salmon season sharply curtailed when officials shut down 700 miles of Pacific coastline due to low salmon returns from the Klamath River.

To Hudson, the restrictions should not have been necessary. One of the best-known problems facing Coho salmon on the Klamath involves the six dams that pinch the river's flow, preventing salmon from spawning upstream and creating shallow reservoirs not conducive to their health. Hudson believes the dams should have been removed a long time ago.

"We cannot wait for another disaster like that to happen. We have to be a little more proactive and fix these problems before they happen," said Hudson, who is president of the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen's Association.

Hudson is now a plaintiff, alongside a number of Klamath River tribal leaders, fishermen and others, in a lawsuit filed last week against PacifiCorp in an attempt to get the company to remove two of its dams along the Klamath to help restore ailing fish populations. Burlingame attorney Joe Cotchett is co-counsel in the suit, which was filed in San Francisco's United States District Court.

The plaintiffs contend that the reservoirs behind the first two dams along the Klamath have spawned destructive annual algae blooms that choke the oxygen out of the water, causing salmon to suffocate. Summer heat also penetrates the reservoirs salmon are trapped in, breeding parasites that infect the fish.

The Yurok and Karuk tribes have been the driving force behind the lawsuit. Their families live along the Klamath and their fishermen depend on the river for a living. It was their water-quality specialists who first noticed the algae blooms along the banks of the reservoirs two years ago, and who first gathered samples for testing.

The laboratory results, from October 2005, found the water so loaded with a liver-damaging toxin called mycrocystin that it was not recommended for human or animal consumption. The North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board later posted the banks of the river with warning signs.

Leaf Hillman didn't need a warning sign to know there was a problem with water quality in the Klamath River. A plaintiff in the case against PacifiCorp, Hillman lives in the ancestral Karuk town of Kotiphiruk, located near Orleans, on the banks of the Klamath.

"I've been swimming in the Klamath River my entire life. As of two years ago, I no longer allow my children to swim in the Klamath because of the health hazard," he said.

Hillman has become accustomed to seeing small numbers of juvenile and adult fish dead on the banks of the river each June, July and August. The science has convinced him that there is a connection between sick salmon and the algae bloom that stretches past his home, which lies below the lowest dam on the river.

"It's like thick spinach floating on top of the water," Hillman said. "It's gross, and it doesn't smell good."

Portland-based PacifiCorp owns five of six hydroelectric dams along the Klamath and provides power to 17,000 households in California and Oregon. The company was acquired by MidAmerican Energy in 2006. MidAmerican is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway holding company.

Klamath experts believe the algae forms in reservoirs with concentrated levels of phosphorous and nitrogen, byproducts of the pesticides and fertilizers that farmers apply to their crops in the upper Klamath basin. These elements eventually leach into the water, but cannot dissipate because the dams prevent the river from flowing at a natural rate.

Bill Kier of Kier Associates has studied the Klamath River ecosystem for decades and has analyzed water data collected by the tribes and by PacifiCorp itself.

"Rivers have a natural ability to clean themselves. When you stick dams across them and create ponds, you reduce that self-cleaning ability," he explained.

"The evidence appears to be that the reservoirs we have studied have the effect of concentrating nutrients and exacerbating algae development ... this may be in fact be responsible for killing a great deal of the juvenile salmon production each year in the river," added Kier.

PacifiCorp is facing other challenges. The company's

50-year license to operate the dams lapsed in spring 2006 during negotiations with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and it is now operating on a year-to-year license while the commission considers requiring the company to upgrade its dams.

Several federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have strongly recommended that PacifiCorp build a "fish ladder" system to help salmon climb over the dams to reach their spawning grounds. Last summer, a judge in Sacramento ruled that PacifiCorp should be required to build the fish ladders, which will cost between $300 million and $350 million.

In an analysis released in March of this year, the California Energy Commission compared the cost to PacifiCorp of building the fish ladders versus removing the dams completely. The study concluded that "it makes more economic sense" for PacifiCorp to remove the dams and buy replacement power from other sources. The company would save $114 million, and pass along that savings to ratepayers.

PacifiCorp spokeswoman Jan Mitchell said the company is in the midst of a mediation process with several Klamath River stakeholders, including representatives of the Karuk tribe. She would not comment on the latest lawsuit or claims that the dams are harming salmon populations.

"We're working with a number of parties and we are trying to reach a resolution. If the parties can't achieve an agreement through the settlement process, we'll continue with the federal process and follow its recommendations," she said.

A fact sheet on PacifiCorp's Web site says the company would consider removing its dams "only if its customers' interests are protected and its property rights are respected."



Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at (650) 348-4340 or at jscott@angnewspapers.com.