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State to set rules for improving Klamath River water quality; owner of dams sees proposed regulations as flawed and unrealistic

John Driscoll, The Times-Standard September 4, 2010
A suite of regulations for the Klamath River could be adopted by the state on Tuesday, but the owner of four dams on the river is going into that hearing fighting against strict provisions proposed to clean up the polluted waterway.

The State Water Resources Control Board will consider a package meant to address excessive nutrients, algae and overly warm water. The limits have been in the works for years, and the state is under court order to have them in place and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by year's end.

Pacificorp, the owner of the four dams, has attacked the science used in the process as based on flawed assumptions, and complained that the standards being set are unrealistic. The company has signed agreements with more than two dozen tribes, agencies and fishing and environmental groups to tear out the four dams -- Iron Gate, J.C. Boyle, Copco 1 and Copco 2 -- but appears to be covering its bases in case the dam removal process collapses.

Just this week, the Humboldt County Department of Environmental Health posted warnings along the lower river about the presence of toxic blue-green algae blooms, cautioning people and pets against contact with the water.

Among the water quality problems that exist, according to the guidelines -- called Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL -- drafted by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, are water too warm for salmon migration and spawning and conditions not beneficial to sport and commercial fishing or to American Indian cultural uses and subsistence fishing.

Bill Kier of Kier Associates, Fisheries and Watershed Professionals, said that the science used in writing the regulations has been supported by nearly everyone involved in the complex process except Pacificorp.

”The TMDL that's before the state board at this point is the very best product that could be produced,” Kier said.

The multi-party agreement to take out the dams is being studied by the federal government, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior must decide by 2012 whether the massive effort is in the public's interest. While a fund is currently being built through rate increases to Pacificorp's Oregon customers to pay for that state's share of the project, California's share is currently in question. A water bond floated by California was originally slated for the November ballot, but its huge cost, the wet spring and a lack of support in the polls prompted lawmakers to pull it. That bond had $250 million in it for the Klamath dams.

As part of a parallel agreement, about $1 billion would be spent on a variety of restoration projects, including wetland restoration efforts upstream believed to be an essential part of improving water quality on the river.

Kier said that a strong TMDL adopted now could make it difficult for Pacificorp to get state certification to continue operation of its dams if the dam removal process doesn't go through.

The demand for TMDLs on a number of Northern California rivers stretches back to a 1995 lawsuit brought by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which asked the U.S. District Court in the region to force their development. The regional water board adopted regulations for the other rivers. But it wasn't until 2006 that the EPA listed the river as impaired under the federal Clean Water Act that the regional water board tackled the Klamath. The court allowed a delay in the schedule, but that timeline runs out in December.

The regional board determined that the Klamath's water is too warm due to the condition of the water crossing the state line from Oregon, heating of water in Pacificorp reservoirs and the Iron Gate Hatchery, and warming of water in major tributaries. Excess nutrients, organic matter and algae, and reduced dissolved oxygen -- harmful to fish and aquatic life -- are due to wetland conversion, agriculture, logging, roads, Pacificorp's reservoirs, the hatchery and suction dredging, the water board determined.

In comments lodged with the regional water board, Pacificorp holds that the water quality problems start in Upper Klamath Lake, and that measures taken downstream can't possibly meet the TMDL objectives. Pacificorp can't control the sources that contribute to poor water quality upstream of its facilities, it has argued, making the regulations inappropriate and not feasible.

Pacificorp spokesman Art Sasse wrote in an e-mail that the company would like to see good science, not “quick science” as imposed by the EPA.

”Through the settlement process Pacificorp is collaboratively (working) with basin stakeholders to implement key provisions of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement that will improve water quality prior to potential removal of the dams, if that is the ultimate decision of the Secretary of the Interior, and that will improve water quality if the dams are not removed,” Sasse wrote.

The company will bring its case to the State Water Board hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday.

Karuk Tribe Klamath Campaign Coordinator Craig Tucker said that Pacificorp has been a good partner during dam removal talks, but said it was disappointing that the company is fighting the TMDLs while the water quality in the river continues to degrade.

”There are ceremonial leaders (from the tribe) bathing in the river today,” Tucker said, in the midst of algae blooms.

He said that the TMDL is fair and scientifically sound, and will make a dramatic improvement in water quality.

John Driscoll covers natural resources/industry. He can be reached at 441-0504 or jdriscoll@times-standard.com.

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              Page Updated: Sunday September 05, 2010 03:16 AM  Pacific

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