SACRAMENTO — In a victory for environmentalists, commercial fishermen and Indian tribes, a federal judge has backed a push by U.S. wildlife agencies for fish ladders over 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 half a century by the towering hydropower dams.
But 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 dams' owner, PacifiCorp of Portland, Ore., 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 comes just days after a federal panel 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," said spokesman Dave Kvamme. But 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 found that the dams have 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.
"We're ready to negotiate a fair settlement with PacifiCorp," Hillman said.
"Hopefully, this ruling will motivate the company to do the same."
Declining salmon runs in the Klamath this year severely curtailed commercial fishing along a 700-mile stretch of Oregon and Northern California coast. Fishermen say their catch is just 10% of normal, and are seeking federal disaster funding to keep the industry from sinking.
"PacifiCorp's Klamath dams have been a disaster," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns.