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Salmon study raises many questions

October 20, 2005

It's a long leap between testing salmon survivability in the Upper Basin of the Klamath River, and actually re-establishing salmon runs from the Pacific Ocean to Upper Klamath Lake and beyond.

There are many questions to be answered first - and that makes the experiment being conducted this week and next in the Upper Basin important. There could be a lot riding on the outcome.

Salmon from Iron Gate Hatchery, located about 50 river miles downriver from Klamath Falls, south of the Oregon-California border near Hornbrook, Calif., have been shipped to pens in Upper Klamath Lake and the Williamson River. The Williamson is a major tributary to the lake.

Water from the lake flows through the Link River to Lake Ewauna, where the Klamath River officially starts its 250-mile route to the Pacific Ocean.

Tests on whether chinook salmon can survive in the upper Basin are being conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the states of Oregon and California and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

To say that the results will be carefully watched is an understatement. If the tests and other studies show salmon can thrive in the Upper Basin, the big question is what happens next.

PacifiCorp has applied for renewal of its 50-year license to operate the series of dams between Klamath Falls and the ocean, which is why the salmon question is being studied. The license expires next year.

Salmon spawned in the Upper Basin until 1918, when the first of the dams, Copco 1, was built near river mile 198. (For reference, the Link River Dam inside the Klamath Falls city limits, is at river mile 254.) Salmon no longer were able to get to the upper Basin's spawning grounds after the dams were built, but when PacifiCorp's applied to renew its license, it was decided that the possibility of getting salmon to the Upper Basin had to be part of the process.

PacifiCorp didn't exactly jump for joy, since putting in fish ladders would cost an estimated $100 million, but is studying it.

There's more at stake in the license question and salmon than just whether the power company should spend the money.

The effects, if any, on the Klamath Reclamation Project are unknown, but worrisome.

Farmers and ranchers in the Upper Basin look to the lakes and the river to provide irrigation water, and their livelihoods depend on getting it each year. So do the towns that rely on agriculture for their economic sustenance.

Salmon migrating upstream into the Basin could create another consideration for water use even if the Chinook salmon involved aren't listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, as are the lower river's coho salmon, or the Upper Basin's suckers.

For now, though, the agencies involved are trying to get scientific data - to show to what extent salmon can survive and spawn in the Basin. If the salmon can, the questions will get harder.




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