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Salmon to return to Klamath

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Salmon fishermen display their catch at the Link River rapids in 1891. Federal scientists plan to put salmon into cages in Upper Klamath Lake and the Williamson River as part of investigation of whether salmon should be returned to the Basin. They have been cut off since 1918 because of power dams on the Klamath River

 October 16, 2005

By DYLAN DARLING, Herald and News

Salmon will be swimming soon in the waters of Upper Klamath Lake and the Williamson River.

But they won't have much room to roam.

The year-old chinook sal-mon will be confined to 2-foot submerged cubical mesh cages that will be put in the water early this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scientists want to see how the salmon react to the lake and river's waters and say the tests could be used in planning a return of the sea-running fish to the Klamath Basin.

Federal officials are weighing whether PacifiCorp, which has a series of five power and water regulating dams on the Klamath River, should be required to install ways for salmon to get around the dams as part of a new 50-year license.

Currently salmon swim up the Klamath River to the 188-foot Iron Gate dam near Interstate 5 and the California-Oregon border, about 40 river miles from Klamath Falls.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has a long-standing interest in returning andromous fish, or sea-faring fish that swim up fresh water rivers to spawn, to the Basin, said Phillip Detrich, field supervisor for the service's Yreka office.

The fish haven't been in the Basin since the first power dam was built on the river in 1918.

”There are several very important questions that have to be answered before putting the fish back,“ said Detrich, who handles Basin-wide issues for the service.

The tests will evaluate how the water quality affects salmon's physical changes as they grow into smolts, young fish ready to go from fresh water to salt water.

The salmon will be put in the water Monday and Tuesday and will be in for two weeks.

”Essentially they will be captives, they will be put in pens - one in the lake and one in the (Williamson) river,“ Detrich said.

The salmon, which were hatched at the Iron Gate Hatchery, won't be able to sneak out of the cages, which are a cube of fine mesh designed to keep the fish in and predators out, said John Hamilton, deputy field supervisor at Yreka. The tests won't cause salmon to be found in the lake or river.

After two weeks in the water, the salmon will be killed and dissected to see how they reacted to the water. A repeat of the tests is planned for the spring. Cost of both tests is $45,000.

Other questions scientists hope to answer are whether there is enough spawning habitat for salmon in the rivers that feed into Upper Klamath Lake. The rivers are home to a famous trout fishery. Trout and salmon can usually co-exist, but if there is limited habitat, the fish may start competing for resources.

”If there is only habitat for one salmon then it's not going to make ecological sense,“ Detrich said. ”We recognize that conditions are considerably changed since 1918, when the fish were last up there.“

Some argue that salmon never swam up into the Basin, but Detrich said federal scientists have reviewed fisheries reports, historic photographs and newspaper reports that lead them to believe that salmon were a familiar fish here.

”There is actually a pretty abundant record of salmon coming all the way up through Upper Klamath Lake up to the Sprague River,“ Detrich said.

But before scientists get too deep into the historic and scientific questions, policy questions will need to be answered.

In February 2004, when PacifiCorp applied for a new license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, plans for providing fish passage past the dams weren't included. Since then, the 7,000-page application has been reviewed by Basin stakeholders, and the company and stakeholders are working on a settlement. And federal agencies also are vetting the application and could ask the commission to attach conditions to the license.

Detrich said the Fish and Wildlife Service may require that the Portland-based company make changes to its dams to allow for a return of salmon to the Basin. The requirements could include ladders for fish to climb on their way upstream, screens from power turbines and bypass tubes for their swim downstream.

Jon Coney, PacifiCorp spokesman, said the company hadn't heard of Fish and Wildlife Service's plans to test salmon in the Basin.

The relicensing deal is not complete, and Coney said the company is keeping all options on the table, including fish passage. In its application, PacifiCorp said putting in fish ladders, screens and bypasses would cost $100 million, and said if plans called for salmon in the Basin, the best way to get them there would be by truck.

”We are curious to see what happens,“ Coney said.

The power company is curious, but water users are nervous about the idea of opening up the Basin to sea-run fish.

Although the chinook salmon is not protected under the Endangered Species Act, it may eventually be included like its cousin, the coho salmon, said Greg Addington, executive director for the Klamath Water Users Association. Federal scientists say coho historically didn't swim into the Basin past Keno.

Federal protection of coho in the Klamath River and sucker fish in Upper Klamath Lake has already put tension on the Klamath Reclamation Project, which serves 240,000 irrigated acres with water from the lake, and caused a major water shortage in 2001.




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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