SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In a victory for environmentalists, commercial fishermen and American Indian tribes, a federal judge has backed a push by U.S. wildlife agencies for fish ladders at four Klamath River dams blamed for sagging salmon runs.
The proposed fish passages would return chinook and endangered coho salmon as well as steelhead and Pacific lamprey to 350 miles of river cut off for more than a half-century by the towering hydropower dams.
Environmentalists and other foes of the dams are hopeful that the hefty cost of installing ladders – expected to be more than $220 million – could push the dam’s owner, PacifiCorp of Portland, to end its fight to win renewal of a long-term operating license and instead remove the dams.
Judge Parlen McKenna’s ruling late Wednesday came just days after a federal commission that licenses hydropower dams issued a preliminary environmental report rejecting fish ladders. That report, by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, largely sided with PacifiCorp’s less-costly proposal to truck salmon around the dams.
Dam foes hope the judge’s ruling will force the commission to amend its draft plan.
PacifiCorp officials say they aren’t about to concede. “We’re disappointed,” spokesman Dave Kvamme said. He characterized the judicial findings as “just one more step” in a long process that won’t conclude until next year.
The 87-page ruling by McKenna, an administrative-law judge, found that the dams had had a serious effect on the salmon and other fish that make a home in the Klamath.
It also backed calls by U.S. wildlife managers for increased river flows to help deal with fish-killing parasites and disease.
Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the Karuk tribe, said it would be cheaper for PacifiCorp to remove the dams than to continue pushing forward with a license renewal and costly fish ladders.
Declining salmon runs in the Klamath this year severely curtailed commercial fishing along a 700-mile stretch of the Oregon and Northern California coasts.