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Klamath Dam Removal Studies Meeting in Orleans

Golden Bears guard the gateway to the Klamath estuary where salmon mingle before they embark on their annual migration to spawn, die and restart their cycle of life./Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, courtesty of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By MALCOLM TERENCE, Two Rivers Tribune

July 13, 2011

ORLEANS—The crowd attending the update meeting on Klamath River dam removal studies recently was not large but they were all steeped in the subject and many held intense and differing opinions. It was no surprise, then, that the small number of state and federal scientists and agency types who hosted the meeting operated with the caution of a crew defusing a bomb.

The session, held in the Karuk Department of Natural Resources Hall, turned out well with many smart questions and well-informed answers, only a half dozen interruptions and no fistfights. The one explosive situation was resolved with an apology offered and accepted.

The scientists represented federal agencies as well as reps from the states of California and Oregon. They explained that the dam removal was not a done deal but that the present rounds of environmental and economic studies would help the Secretary of Interior make a determination by March, 2012.

Pat Higgins, a McKinleyville-based fish biologist, complained that the Hoopa Tribe, which was party in the negotiations but refused to sign the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), was being excluded from ongoing deliberations. Higgins said that some of the decisions seemed based more on politics than science.

John Bezdek, who works as a solicitor in the office of the Interior Secretary, said all of the processes are public and groups like the Hoopa Tribe, who are not parties to the KBRA are invited to comment. The Hoopa Tribe argues that they have been excluded and that many meetings occur behind closed doors.

The Hoopa Tribe supports dam removal but not everyone at the meeting favored taking down the dams. Dam removal is the purpose of a companion document called the Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement (KHSA).

Dennis Lynch, who works for the US Geological Survey in Portland said the studies would be completed by the end of August and there would be a two-month period for public comment and peer review.

Lynch, who was appointed as the lead on the Secretarial Determination Team, shared the current thinking on the problems of accumulated sediments if the dams are removed. All the dams would be removed in the same year and in early winter to minimize harm to juvenile coho salmon, a protected species.

It would be costly and risk disturbing the surrounding landscape and cultural sites to try to truck the sediments elsewhere, he said, so natural erosion from winter flows would be used. Scientists are projecting higher impact upriver than downriver and some mortality to out-migrating juvenile salmonids including less than 1 percent for Chinook, approximately 10 percent for coho and 30 percent for steelhead.

The slug of sediment is expected to move through the river and out to the ocean during the first winter and the mortality in that year is expected to be offset by the improvement in habitat after the dams are gone because of enlarged and improved habitat.

Additional measurements have confirmed earlier studies which showed only minor levels of toxic material in the sediments.

Several strategies would be use for fish protection including re-vegetation and short term re-location of juvenile coho, lamprey eels and river mussels.

Lynch stressed that the dams are not designed for flood protection, in part because only 5 percent of the water in a Klamath River flood comes from above Iron Gate, the lowest dam. Worst case, he said, water levels in a flood might raise two feet near the dam and six inches from Seiad downriver.

Government science teams were predicting that dam removal could save bull trout and suckers from extinction, foster a small increase of coho, increase steel head and promote a major increase in Chinook. They noted that nitrate-rich agricultural runoff above Keno Dam, which is not slated for removal, was still a problem because the pollution deprived the water of oxygen so badly that fish passage was impossible at certain times of year.

Richard Gierak, a chiropractor from Yreka and a long-time opponent of dam removal, said that there were more salmon being caught than in the past but that they were moving north to Alaska because of oceanic warming. The warming was not man-made, he contended, but caused by subsurface volcanic activity around the Pacific rim.

Ted Wise, a rep from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that ocean temperature changes would mean that the water flow agreements embodied in the KBRA would be even more important.

Jerry Bacigelupi, a civil engineer from Montague who also opposes dam removal, questioned the plan for sediment removal and asked if other alternatives had been considered, including his own suggestion of a four-mile long bypass tunnel.

Gordon Leppig from the California Department of Fish and Game said that approach had been evaluated and discounted by biologists.

Felice Pace, a long-time critic of many parts of the KBRA but a supporter of dam removal, said there was a need for restoration science to replace what he called “restoration politics.” He focused heavily on the agricultural pollution of the Keno reach.

Lynch agreed that the nutrient laden water in the stretch of the water promoted algae growth and used up all of the available dissolved oxygen creating a dead zone. The KBRA, Lynch said, included funding to search for ways to improve that situation.

Pace questioned whether the proposed transfer of the Keno Dam from private PacifiCorp to the federal Bureau of Reclamation was premature until water quality issues were resolved.

Toz Soto, a fish biologist, said it was not possible to remove politics from the fish but it was possible to remove the dams and said any effective restoration efforts would have to be large in scale to have a meaningful effect.

The most global comments at the meeting came from Ron Reid who introduced himself as a member of a traditional Karuk family that has always participated in World Renewal ceremonies.

His people, Reid said, gave up 1.4 million acres they had used for fishing, hunting and gathering when Siskiyou County was established in 1851 and the Karuk way of life was shattered.

Even in the 1960s and 1970s, Karuk fishermen were still succeeding but now, “those dams are smothering our culture.”

He characterized the dams as “cultural genocide” and said Karuk people now suffer from widespread diabetes and hypertension. “And what do they get when they go to the doctor?” he asked. “Fish oil capsules!”

He then turned toward Jim Burney, a member of the audience, and said Burney had thrown Reid off Burney’s land along the river just below the dams when Reid was there with a film crew.

Burney, a large man who owns the Fishhook Restaurant and is a vocal opponent of dam removal, rose to his feet and, in a defiant voice, said that he had always allowed Karuk field workers to take water samples on his land but that Reid had come without asking permission.

Tempers flared but the meeting went on. A few minutes later, Burney stood again to offer an apology for his actions. Reid said he’d been invited there by a film crew from Trout Unlimited and Burney said Reid was always welcomed there in the future. Reid formally accepted his apology.

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