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Salmon Above the Dams
By John Driscoll, Eureka Times-Standard
November 12, 2005

A fierce debate and charges of misrepresenting scientific work on what’s best for salmon on the Klamath River have risen from the reams of papers submitted to the federal agency charged with relicensing the river’s dams.

That’s nothing new on one of the West’s most troubled rivers. This time the contention is over a report requested by major parties in the proceedings. It found that taking out all of PacifiCorp’s dams is most likely the best option for fish.

But when PacifiCorp filed its consultant’s paper with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, it included its own take, which cast a most pessimistic view on dam removal. The consultant lashed back, charging that the utility grossly misrepresented her work.

She was backed up by California agencies, conservation groups and tribes, who excoriated PacifiCorp for bucking the methods the group had agreed upon.

Gretchen Oosterhout owns the Eagle Point, Ore., company Decision Matrix. Her report used computer modeling to rank 13 alternatives ranging from no change, to trucking fish around dams to pulling out all five dams.

The report was intended to help FERC decide which alternative it should order as part of issuing a new license for the project in 2006. To say the least, the report and the methods used to draw the conclusion are esoteric and highly complicated. And while everyone agrees there is significant uncertainty involved, the methods are widely believed to be the best available.

When PacifiCorp’s take on her paper was fraught with error, Oosterhout said in a Sept. 29 response. She said PacifiCorp’s assertions that fish passage above the dams would be futile are mistaken.

”All the analyses done to date show conclusively that PacifiCorp’s pessimism is unsupported by the best available analyses,” Oosterhout wrote, “and, to the contrary, strongly suggest there’s an excellent chance of success.”

Two recent studies -- one published in the American Fisheries Society Journal and another by a Klamath Tribes consultant -- found that salmon historically migrated into the upper reaches of the watershed, into Oregon’s Sprague, Williamson and Wood rivers above Upper Klamath Lake. Several hundred miles of spawning habitat is available above the dams, aquatic biologist C.W. Huntington determined.

This vast territory is what once supported the third largest run of salmon on the West Coast. The dams, logging, mining, overfishing, water diversions and other factors have all damaged the runs. Today, fish runs are bolstered by a major hatchery at Iron Gate Dam -- which stops all fish at river mile 190. They are susceptible to disease in a warm, shallow river, weakening runs and affecting tribal and sport fishing on the river, and commercial fishing up and down the coast.

PacifiCorp contends that there is considerable uncertainty as to whether young chinook salmon could navigate Upper Klamath Lake if they were allowed to reach it. The company also says that assumptions plugged into the model can significantly alter the results of the modeling and show salmon would be at risk of extinction.

”There’s nothing unusual about this,” said PacifiCorp spokesman Dave Kvamme of the company weighing in on the report. “This is the way documents are handled during the FERC process.”

PacifiCorp’s position roiled some of the agencies involved.

”PacifiCorp is misusing tools developed to aid fisheries restoration to erroneously conclude that salmon and steelhead cannot survive in the Klamath River above Iron Gate Dam,” wrote Russ Kans, an environmental scientist for the State Water Resources Control Board.

Others see PacifiCorp’s stance as typical in comparison with other utilities called upon to make up for their projects’ impacts on other rivers. How PacifiCorp positions itself during the proceedings can affect what they give up in the end, said Curtis Knight with California Trout, who is closely involved in both the FERC process and in parallel settlement talks. ”It’s everybody covering themselves,” Knight said. “I think the utilities take that to an extreme. I think we’re seeing a bit of that now.”

Some preliminary cost estimates done by PacifiCorp on providing traditional fish ladders and screens to get fish through the gauntlet of dams and reservoirs reached more than $100 million. Estimates done by conservation groups found that all of the dams might be removed for less than $50 million, though some believe all those costs could be twice that much.

”It’s not rocket science to realize that taking out the dams would open up some habitat,” said Annie Manji, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game.

She said Oosterhout’s analysis is critical to help learn which alternatives are best, not just how much each will cost.

In the end, FERC must weigh hundreds of pounds of documents and come to a decision, taking into account progress on the settlement talks. Its decision will shape the future of the river for up to 50 years.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and as defined under the provisions of "fair use", any copyrighted material herein is distributed without profit or payment for non-profit research and for educational use by our membership.