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Tribes demand Pacificorp remove dams

CEO says no objections to tribes’ demand for removal of dams on Klamath River, but will the fix really happen?

By Dave Mazza

Exactly 90 years ago construction began on the first of several power-generation dams on the Klamath River. ... This action subsequently blocked all runs of salmon and steelhead from our homeland ... runs they had made since the beginning of time. Promises were made to remedy the situation by providing fish passages ... Today there are four dams and two smaller dams on the Klamath River and the tribes are still without their salmon.
—Allan Foreman,Chairman
Klamath Tribes of Oregon

More than 200 Native Americans from four nations gathered at the feet of a northeast Portland statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Aug. 2 to demand removal of four dams from the Klamath River. The tribes say the dams are responsible for the drop from pre-dam runs of Klamath River wild salmon numbering 880,000 to the less than 30,000 returning this year — including some once thriving stocks now approaching extinction.

The good news for the tribes and the salmon is that new leadership at Pacificorp — owners of the dams — states dam removal is possible if the impact on ratepayers isn’t too great. What remains to be seen is whether there is the corporate will to do the right thing. After 90 years of promises, the tribes are understandably skeptical.
“Time is running out. The time for action is now,” states Leaf Hillman, a leader of the Karuk Tribe of California. “The new leadership says they have heard our voices. They say they will work with us to bring the salmon home. Do they mean it this time?”

The Northern California-Southern Oregon tribes have questioned the intent of whites since contact between the two in the 19th century drove Native Americans onto reservations, making room for white settlement and exploitation of natural resources, including salmon. In the beginning, tribal members were able to maintain their traditional lives built around the salmon despite other changes that came with the treaties. The volume of those salmon runs even accommodated a growing white commercial fishing industry into the early 20th century. The Klamath River continued to support the third largest salmon run in America.

That changed in 1917, when industrialized white culture collided with the weakened nations. Construction of Copco 1 Dam on the Klamath River started that year.

When the dam was completed in 1918, access to more than 350 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat on the upper Klamath main stem and its tributaries was permanently blocked. In 1921, the Link River Dam was constructed 254 miles up the main stem of the river. Copco 2 Dam was built in 1925 just a quarter-mile downstream from Copco 1. Keno Dam came in 1931, J. C. Boyle Dam in 1958 and, finally, Iron Gate Dam was constructed in 1962 to re-regulate a river now transformed by several dams.

The once cold, swift-moving, wild waters of the Klamath and its tributaries were transformed into a series of slow moving, warm lakes. For a mile near the J.C. Boyle Dam, the majority of the river flow is diverted through a flume. None of the dams have fish ladders.

These conditions prove to be a disaster for Chinook salmon — particularly the spring Chinook, the largest run in the region. Spring Chinook enter the river when the melting snow lowers water temperatures. The “springers” remain in the river until the fall when they finally spawn. Over the summer they seek “cold water refugia” — sections of the river where water temperature is especially low, usually found near the headwaters. The dams cut off these areas to the springers. Water temperature in the areas they can access remains too high. In 2005, only 90 springers were found during the annual fish count.

The dams have an adverse impact on water quality. The interruption of the Klamath’s swift flow makes it impossible for the river to flush out agricultural runoff from upstream. The warming of the river water provides an ideal environment for algae — some forms of which are highly toxic. At present, blue-green algae — Microsystis aeruginosa — contaminates much of the river. This variety of blue-green algae is highly toxic, secreting a potent liver toxin and proven tumor promoter called microcystin. The EPA does not track microcycstin levels, however, the World Health Organization does. Levels of 100,000 cells/milliliter of water represent a moderate health risk for recreational users. Samples taken by tribal monitors found locations where the microcystin level was more than 100 million cells/milliliter or 1000 times greater than the WHO moderate risk levels. These findings support anecdotal information about people suffering burns and other skin problems after swimming in the contaminated areas.

Declining runs and contaminated waters have an impact on the local economy. Happy Camp, in addition to serving the nations for thousands of years was also considered the “steelhead capital of the world,” playing host to anglers from all the continents. The cash flow from that activity helped maintain the tribal communities for decades but is now drying up due to the Klamath River dams’ impact.

Nor are the dams offering other economic advantages in return. All four dams collectively produce 147 mega-watts of energy. The California Energy Commission determined that loss of that energy would not be significant for the region or larger power system. None of the dams provide irrigation diversions, nor provide flood control. The area’s most devastating flood took place two years after the construction of Iron Gate dam.

Deconstruction of the dams, on the other hand, could offer the region a much-needed economic boost. To remove the four main stem dams will take a $200-$500 million investment — nearly all of it in Siskiyou County. The project would create a large number of construction jobs that would in turn channel millions of dollars into the local economy. This short-term windfall would be followed by a revival of the fishing and tourist industries in the area.

This is not simply an economic or scientific issue. The salmon are more than a food source or commodity for sale to the Native Americans fishing the banks of the Klamath River. The salmon holds a sacred place in each of the nations’ view of themselves and the world around them.

“The salmon were the first to step up and say ‘I’ll help your people.’ Now it is our turn,” stated the Yurok Tribe’s Frankie Meyer. “They are more than creatures of the water. They are people just like you or me.”

With so many reasons for removing the dams, why are they still there? The primary reason has been a refusal by Pacificorp to take action. The company has met with the tribes and with fishermen over the years but has not reached consensus about the most important action that needed to take place to restore salmon runs: remove four of the main stem dams.

Now, the parties find themselves at a key moment. The operating permits for the dams are up for review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The review process gives the public a chance to express their concerns over the dams. Even more important, the process gives the governors of the states involved the opportunity to demand more effective strategies for restoring the salmon and the general health of the entire watershed.

Which brings us back to the 200 Native Americans gathered in the hot August sun at the feet of a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. They recognize that time is running out. The salmon won’t have too many other chances at coming back from the brink. They also fully understand how salmon and tribe are linked — and that those links extend to the larger world. They are working in coalition not just with their own four nations but with commercial fishing interests and environmental groups. They hope that this march and demonstration will stir others to join in the effort because it is going to take a powerful coalition to move Warren Buffet, the billionaire who now owns Pacificorp, to pay more than lip service to the idea that the dams should be removed. But as the man around whose statue they gather knew, once moved to action, people can accomplish anything.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.


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Last Updated: September 13, 2006