River May Flow Again, Full of Salmon

The Klamath River in Oregon and California was once the third most productive salmon fishery on the West Coast.
The Klamath River in Oregon and California was once the third most productive salmon fishery on the West Coast. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

SEATTLE -- Big rivers in the West are reliable sources of bad news. Dammed for electricity and drained for irrigation, they have pushed salmon into extinction, fishermen into bankruptcy and Indians into despair.

This dismal pattern, though, may be ending on the Klamath, which straddles the Oregon-California border and has long been one of the nation's most thoroughly fouled-up rivers. Its woes include massive fish kills, blooms of poisonous algae, diabetic Indians, fuming irrigators, litigious environmentalists and aging dams that produce little power while squatting stolidly in the way of reviving the river.

Two decisions last week -- one by a federal court in California, the other by the Bush administration -- raise the surprising possibility that the Klamath may overcome many of these troubles. For the first time in the nearly eight decades since the river was dammed, Indians and commercial fishermen, environmentalists and federal fish scientists agree that there are sound reasons to believe in the comeback of a river that once supported the third largest salmon runs on the West Coast.

"After a lot of grim years, this was a big week for us," said Craig Tucker, a spokesman for the Karuk, a tribe whose salmon-centered existence collapsed when the river was dammed. Tribal members have since skidded into an epidemic of obesity, heart disease and early-onset diabetes.

"People may look back on this past week and say that is when things really turned around for fish in the Klamath," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for National Marine Fisheries Services, the federal agency charged with protecting endangered fish.

"It feels hopeful, and it feels different," said Kristen L. Boyles, a staff lawyer for Earthjustice, which has often sued the Bush administration to protect West Coast salmon. "Credit is due the government scientists who are finally saying the right thing and the politicians who are allowing them to say it."

For generations, the Klamath has had two overarching problems: low flows of water as a result of irrigation diversions and dams that block migrating salmon, and also make the river an unnaturally warm breeding ground for fish-killing bacteria and algae.

Salmon runs have plummeted from historic highs of a million fish a year in the early 1900s to a prediction this year of fewer than 30,000. Three consecutive years of such near-record low returns of adult salmon are forcing the likely closure this year of commercial and sport fishing in all areas where Klamath chinook salmon might be caught. A decision is expected this week. If it occurs, it would be one of the largest and most costly fishery closures in West Coast history, affecting 700 miles of the Oregon-California coastline.

A federal court ruling last week, however, may go a long way toward solving the problem of lethal low flows in future years.

In Oakland, U.S. District Court Judge Saundra B. Armstrong ordered that the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates one of the nation's oldest irrigation projects on the Klamath, must limit the quantity of water sucked out of the river for farmers in dry years. There are scientifically set minimum flows needed to protect migrating salmon, the judge ordered, and the federal government cannot fiddle with them.

This was a repudiation of Bush administration policy. During a severe drought in 2002, the administration -- with Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, personally championing the cause of farmers -- gave the Klamath federal irrigation project its normal allotment of water. Salmon were left to bear the brunt of the drought. That fall, in a fish kill that made national headlines, more than 30,000 adult salmon died. The state of California blamed it on low river flows, warm water, crowding of fish and an outbreak of bacterial disease.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit last fall found the Bush administration's plan for operating the Klamath to be in conflict with the "underlying science" of salmon biology. Implementing that finding last week, Armstrong ordered the federal government to come up with a "new biological opinion based on the current scientific evidence."

Environmental groups and Indian tribes said the fish have won what they need to survive, while irrigators said that they have been pushed into a new era of uncertainty. Dry years, said Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Association, "are going to be very tough."

As for the four large dams that block salmon passage, it was the Bush administration's own fisheries experts who demanded last week that the privately owned dams either be removed or rebuilt in a hugely expensive way that allows fish passage.

The decision surprised environmentalists because the Bush administration in recent years has insisted that hydroelectric dams on some Western rivers are part of the "environmental baseline." During visits to federal dams on the Snake River in Washington state, Bush has personally vowed that they would never be removed -- despite environmentalists' assertions that they are marginal power producers and responsible for the extinction of salmon.

But the Klamath, as of last week, seems to be different, as far as the federal government is concerned.

"Dam decommissioning and dam removal," the Department of Interior and the National Marine Fisheries Service declared last week, "would go a long way toward resolving decades of degradation where Klamath River salmon stocks are concerned."

In its prescription for relicensing Klamath dams, whose license expired in March, the federal government is pushing the dam owner into what may be a financially untenable position:

Get started on what would be the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history, or spend about $200 million on fish ladders and other fish-passage equipment. The annual value of electricity produced by the four dams is only about $27 million, according to the California Energy Commission.

The dams' owner is PacifiCorp, a Portland, Ore., company that was recently acquired by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a company owned by Warren E. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

As of now, PacifiCorp wants to keep the dams in the river producing electricity, and it does not believe that spending $200 million for fish ladders will help revive salmon runs, said Dave Kvamme, a company spokesman.

PacifiCorp, though, has a record for flexibility when it comes to the labyrinthine process of renewing a federal license to operate a dam. It has recently agreed to remove three dams in the Pacific Northwest. For the past two years, it has been in private settlement talks with other stakeholders on the Klamath.

Federal biologists believe that those settlement talks -- in the aftermath of the court ruling and administration demand last week -- may soon produce a breakthrough for the Klamath.

"We have an historic doorway that is opening here," said Steve Thompson, California-Nevada operations manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It is potentially very good for everybody who lives on the river."

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