Farmers, Fishers, Tribes Say “Restore the Klamath!”

by Elizabeth Brink
Thursday, February 1, 2007

A broad coalition has come together to call for removal of four dams and restoration of once-thriving salmon runs in the Klamath River. Sovereign tribes, farmers, fishers and conservationists have found common ground and are fighting for the health of the Klamath and for the economic, social and environmental prosperity of their communities.

What was once the third most productive salmon run on the US west coast has dropped by over 90% since four dams were built, culminating in one of the worst runs ever in 2006, according to the Klamath Riverkeeper. Low runs of wild Klamath salmon have led to severe restrictions on commercial salmon fishing on over 700 miles of coastline in Oregon and California. These conditions have resulted in federal disaster declarations and have fueled the Klamath dam-removal movement by the states, fishermen, tribes and environmental groups.

Passing through the Cascade Range of southern Oregon and northern California, the Klamath and its fish are sacred to native people, including the Karuk, Yurok and Hupa tribes, as well a confederation of the Klamath, Modoc, and Yahooskin people known as the Klamath Tribes. The river is prime habitat for chinook and coho salmon as well as steelhead and rainbow trout.

The dams’ devastation of the Klamath salmon reached new heights in recent years, with agricultural water diversions leading to a massive fish kill in 2002 (68,000 fish died due to low flows), and the recent discovery of deadly toxic algae behind two of the reservoirs. In February, three groups – the Klamath Riverkeeper, the Karuk Tribe of California, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association (PCFFA) – jointly petitioned the California State Water Board to hold dam owner PacifiCorp accountable for dangerously high blooms of toxic bluegreen algae in the Iron Gate and Copco reservoirs. PacifiCorp is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett.

Even modest exposure to the toxin produced by the algae, called microcystin, can lead to skin rashes, vomiting, and diarrhea. High doses of the toxin, such as those found in the Klamath reservoirs each summer, could lead to massive liver failure and even death in humans. Microcystin also threatens to kill fish and other wildlife. “This year, in our second year of measuring algae, the Iron Gate and Copco reservoirs had the highest levels of the algal toxic microcystin ever measured in the United States,” states Craig Tucker, who represents the Karuk Tribe. “They exceeded the World Health Organization’s guidelines for a moderate risk of exposure by 4,000-fold.”

The deadly algal blooms only serve to compound the urgency of the upcoming relicensing process for the dams. (In the US, relicensing is periodically required for non-federally owned dams, and can determine whether changes must be made to improve downstream environmental conditions.) Despite the known impacts and intense lobbying by the coalition of tribes, conservationists and fishermen, PacifiCorp’s 2004 application for a new 50- year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) operating license did not include provisions for allowing salmon to return to over 300 miles of former habitat above the dams.

In January, however, the US Department of the Interior ruled that PacifiCorp must equip the four dams with fish ladders, a modification which could cost more than $300 million, making removal of the dams a possibly cheaper option. The four dams produce 169 megawatts of power.

Days after the court ruling, a PacifiCorp spokesman said the company may be willing to pay to keep the dams. But the company’s own ratepayers favor removing the dams and support modest rate increases in order to fund environmental restoration. “Governor Kulongoski of Oregon and the Schwarzenegger administration in California support dam removal, the fishing industry supports dam removal, the Klamath tribes that depend on the river support dam removal, environmental organizations support removal, and now it’s clear that PacifiCorp ratepayers support dam removal as well,” said Kelly Catlett of Friends of the River.

We never said we wouldn’t consider dam removal as an outcome in the settlement process,” said Dave Kvamme of PacifiCorp.

The people who work, live on and love the Klamath say it is time to do more than consider. The name Klamath comes from a Native American word klamet meaning “swiftness.” The time has come for a swift resolution to the Klamath crisis. This river and its people have paid a high enough price for far too long.