PORTLAND, Ore. - The salmon that return to the Klamath River have been in a
holding pattern of sorts since 2001, waiting on the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission's reli-censing process.
PacifiCorps, a subsidiary of multinational energy giant Scottish Power,
operates seven dams on the Klamath River. Their licenses will expire in
Those who are interested in bringing the salmon back home to the Upper
Klamath Lake see the current window as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to
decommission or remove the most egregious hydropower obstacles so the fish
can have the run of the river.
FERC, which controls the operation and fate of federal hydroelectric dams,
generally authorizes licenses for 30 to 50 years at a time.
The Klamath River was once the third most productive salmon fishery in
America, with as many as 1.2 million adult fish coming back upstream to
their spawning grounds every year. After almost a century of dam-building,
one-tenth of that number successfully return - and are relegated to the
lower stretch of the river.
As Carl Ullman, longtime water attorney for the Klamath Tribes (Klamath,
Modoc, and Yahoosking Band of Snake) said, "The Klamaths have treaty rights
in perpetuity to the fishery that was shut off by Copco Dam in 1917. Since
then the tribes have never stopped trying to get the fish back, and now it
looks like the relicensing of the dams is an opportunity to move in that
In 2001 the Klamath, Oregon's largest tribe, joined the three biggest
tribes in California (Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Karuk) and representatives
from a range of agencies and interest groups to form the Klamath
Hydroelectric Relicensing Fish Passage Advisory Team. The group researched
and provided FERC with information that supports bringing the salmon back
Jeff Mitchell, of the Klamath River Inter-Tribal Fish and Water Commission,
said "We know that dam removal won't solve all of our problems, but
reopening the 350 miles of habitat upstream of the dams is a prerequisite
to any other restoration programs."
Documents filed with FERC suggest that water quality problems in the Upper
Klamath Basin may be used to question whether salmon can be reintroduced
there. The Klamath have pointed out that while it's true that water quality
problems exist, there are areas that would support the fish even in the
lake's present condition.
"Another contentious point is whether the fish really did get clear up into
the upper basin in the first place," Ullman said. "In that area as well,
the tribe has done its research and made a solid case for the fact that the
fishery used the entire Klamath Basin."
In addition to formal FERC proceedings in which there are no oral
arguments, confidential negotiations are taking place. Mediators have been
hired to facilitate the process, and most of the interested parties are
While FERC and the mediated group work in private, members of the Klamath
tribes and the three California tribes joined a gathering of over 200 at
the California Capitol in Sacramento. They called for Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger to serve as "Conan the Riparian" and throw added clout
toward his support of the Klamath River salmon.
"We need the governor to take strong steps to restore the Klamath River to
benefit not only the tribes, but all Californians and Oregonians," said
Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the Karuk Tribe.
Off-the-record sources indicate the fish might find their way back home,
but only time will tell. Come 2006, the mediated group will make its
proceedings available to FERC, which ultimately will make its pronouncement
on the fate of the dams and the fishery.