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Schwarzenegger stomps on the North Coast Water Board PacifiCorp exempted from compliance

On January 24th in Eureka the North Coast Water Board approved the long-awaited plan to clean up agricultural and other pollution in the Klamath River. Drafts of the plan included a mandate for PacifiCorp - owned of five Klamath River dams - to clean up toxic algae growing in its reservoirs. But the Governor's Office ordered that mandate scrapped in favor of a deal worked out with the company in separate closed-door negotiations. The article explains why and speculates on how tribes and environmental groups will respond.
Iron Gate Dam - one of PacifiCorp's five Klamath River dams
Iron Gate Dam - one of PacifiCorp's five Klamath River dams
Toxic Blue-Green Algae in bloom - Iron Gate Reservoir (Photo by Thomas Dunklin)
Toxic Blue-Green Algae in bloom - Iron Gate Reservoir (Photo by Thomas Dunklin)
On March 24th in Eureka the North Coast California Water Quality Control Board - the body charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act in California portions of the Klamath River Basin - unanimously approved a clean-up plan for the Klamath River. While most environmental and fishing interests praised the plan, long-time Klamath River Activist Felice Pace alleged that the decision had been tainted by interference from the office of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Last week Pace told the Water Board that the Governor's office ordered the Board and its staff to change provisions applying to PacifiCorp - the Berkshire-Hathaway-Warren Buffet subsidiary which owns the five main stem Klamath River dams. According to his hearing testimony, the Water Board dutifully changed language in the clean-up plan in a manner that exempts PacifiCorp from Clean Water Act compliance.

This means that PacifiCorp will not be required to directly clean-up Microcystin - a toxic, blue-green algae by-product - which is proliferating in the company's Klamath Reservoirs. Microcystin from those reservoirs has rendering Klamath River water dangerous for people and animals which come in contact with it all the way from the dams to the Pacific Ocean. Microcystin is a powerful liver toxin.

Instead, PacifiCorp will pay farmers and ranchers above the dams to reduce the nutrient pollution they discharge. This in turn is supposed to improve the quality of the water PacifiCorp receives in its reservoirs and likewise the quality of the water discharged from the dams. The whole scheme has not been tried before or modeled and it is unknown whether or not it will be effective in reducing pollution from the dams.

What is known is that, if the North Coast Water Board decision stands, PacifiCorp will have escaped from the obligation for discharges from its reservoirs to meet Klamath River water quality standards. Those standards were established to protect Public and Tribal Trust Resources - including salmon and recreation. They include not only a prohibition on the release of Microcystin but also temperature and dissolved oxygen standards which the PacifiCorp dams do not meet.

These are the same PacifiCorp dams that have been in the news lately because of a deal that could lead to removal of four of the five dams sometime after 2020 and transfer of the fifth dam and reservoir, Keno, to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. According to Pace, Governor Schwarzenegger's interference with the Water Board is a result of that deal which some say will not only bring down four of the five PacifiCorp Klamath dams but will also restore the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon. Handing out an exemption from Clean Water Act compliance for at least the next ten years, however, seems to some observers a strange way to begin restoring the Klamath River.

Activist Pace told the Board that their action granting the exemption is illegal and that the governor's interference undermines the authority of the Board. He called on all those who want to see the Clean Water Act implemented in a fair and effective manner to join in challenging the PacifiCorp exemption.

What happens next is not clear. The Karuk Tribe and Klamath Riverkeeper previously led the fight to get PacifiCorp to eliminate toxic algae from its reservoirs ( http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2008/11/06/18549390.php). The Karuk Tribe, however, is not expected to challenge the North Coast Water Board's tainted decision because it has signed onto the closed-door Klamath deal-making which led directly to Schwarzenegger's interference with the Water Board.

It is also unknown whether Klamath Riverkeeper - which has close ties to the Karuk Tribe - will take on the issue. Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe's spokesperson on Klamath River issues and a strong supporter of the Klamath deal-making, also sits on the Klamath Riverkeeper Board of Directors.

Clean-Up Plan offers hope:

In spite of the PacifiCorp exemption, the Klamath Clean-Up Plan gives some hope to those who have been working for decades to restore Klamath River Salmon and Steelhead. That is because the dams - while a significant water quality threat - are not the main source of Klamath River water pollution. Livestock waste and other agricultural pollution is by far that #1 cause; it is also what drives the Klamath's regular fish kills and was the root cause of what some claim was the largest fish kill in US history - the die off in 2002 of over 60,000 adult salmon in the lower Klamath River during the Fall spawning migration.

While the five PacifiCorp dams which block the free flow of the Klamath River are not the main source of Klamath pollution, they do make the poor quality water they receive much worse. As a result, it is unclear whether Klamath River Coho and Spring Chinook Salmon will survive if the PacifiCorp exemption is not overturned. Dam removal is not guaranteed by the recent Dam and Water Deal and under the deal it will be at least a decade before dam removal could actually begin.

Klamath River Spring Chinook represent the most appropriate stock for restoration to the Upper Klamath River Basin if and when the dams actually come down. If this stock is extinct or nearly so when the dams are removed it can not be used for the active salmon restoration desired by Klamath River Basin tribes.

According to Pace, the Klamath River Clean-Up Plan can only be successful if the exemption provided to PacifiCorp is reversed. The rest of the Plan adopted by the Water Board also needs to be followed up expeditiously with specifics.

As is often the case, the devil will be in the details. Until those specifics are spelled out, it will not be clear whether or not the North Coast Water Board has the will to stand up to defiant local agricultural interests, the Farm Bureau and the county politicians who cater to those interests and who oppose requiring clean-up of Klamath River pollution.

All told the long struggle to clean up the Klamath River is still in doubt. While promoters of the recently completed Klamath Dam and Water Deal claim that taking down the dams will restore the River, scientists and restorationists know this is hyperbola. The politically astute also understand that dam removal is not guaranteed. Will political interference and back room deals continue to make restoration of the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon an unrealized hope? Only time will tell; but Schwarzenegger's interference to get PacifiCorp a Clean Water Act exemption does not bode well for the River or for Klamath Salmon.


Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975 and has worked to protect its rivers and forests since the 1980s. Felice currently lives near the mouth of the Klamath River at Klamath Gl

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