Study Suggests Salmon Thrived Above Klamath Dams
GRANT'S PASS, Ore. Based on a review of historical and archaeological evidence, a group of federal biologists has concluded that salmon definitely spawned in waters far above a series of hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River that have blocked fish since 1917.
The report comes as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission considers whether to grant the utility Pacificorp a new license to operate four dams straddling the Oregon-California border as they are, or go along with Indian tribes, commercial fishermen and conservationists who want the dams removed or altered to open access to hundreds of miles of spawning habitat.
Besides being the focus of intense political battles over allocations of water between fish and farms, the Klamath River is a keystone for setting annual salmon harvests in the Pacific Ocean. The need to protect weak Klamath runs this year is forcing sharp reductions in the commercial chinook harvest off Oregon and California.
Allen Foreman, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, said he hoped the report would increase pressure to restore salmon to the upper Klamath Basin by settling any doubts that salmon were once plentiful in rivers flowing into Upper Klamath Lake, the source of the Klamath River.
"If more people recognized" salmon had been in the upper basin "the willingness (to restore salmon) will come then," Foreman said.
The peer-reviewed report, "Distribution of Anadramous Fishes in the Upper Klamath River Watershed Prior to Hydropower Dams," was compiled by biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management, and a hydraulic engineer from NOAA Fisheries.
The report will be included in Fish and Wildlife recommendations to the Interior Department, which will decide whether to demand fish passage as part of a new operating license for the dams, said John Hamilton, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who was lead author on the report.
PacifiCorp wants to relicense four dams built between 1917 and 1962 that produce 147.2 megawatts, enough for 75,000 homes and 1.7 percent of its total output for 1.6 million customers in six Western states.
PacifiCorp has put the cost of fish ladders and fish screens on the dams at $100 million.
The report was based on historical newspaper articles and photos, and fisheries, ethnographic and archaeological reports.
The greatest amount of evidence was for chinook salmon, both the spring runs that were once a leading source of food for tribes, and fall runs that are key to setting ocean fishing seasons.
The report cited historical accounts, fisheries reports and salmon bones excavated from an Indian village to establish chinook clearly spawned in the Sprague River. Historical accounts and fisheries reports were cited for the Williamson River.
Substantial information also showed that steelhead, a prized sport fish, reached the upper basin and spawned in the Sprague, Williamson and Wood rivers.
Coho salmon, a threatened species figuring in water allocation battles, spawned in tributaries above Iron Gate Dam, but not as far as Upper Klamath Lake, the report said.
"It confirms what we have been saying all along -- the Klamath was the No. 3 salmon-producing river in America historically, and the Klamath dams divided it in two and killed all the salmon that once spawned in abundance above the dams," said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California commercial fishermen.
Pacificorp feels chances of restoring salmon to the upper basin are low due to poor water quality in Upper Klamath Lake and degraded habitat in the Sprague River, said spokesman Jon Coney.
"If Upper Klamath Lake were in the same shape it was in 1850, I think it would be a different ball game," Coney said. "Unfortunately, the lake has degenerated so much in the last 100 years, that from our research fish passage wouldn't necessarily lead to a sustainable population of oceangoing fish."
Most salmon passing through the lake would miss the summer months when water quality is worst, said Curtis Knight of California Trout. The world-class trout fishing in the Williamson and Wood rivers shows they have lots of prime habitat, and the Sprague is benefiting from several restoration projects.
Source: Associated Press