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New hurdle for Klamath dams

Utility could face scrutiny over water quality
Associated Press – 3/21/08

GRANTS PASS, ORE. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has listed toxins from blue-green algae as another pollutant of the Klamath River behind the hydroelectric dams that Indian tribes, fishermen and conservation groups want removed to make way for salmon.

photo: Klamath Dam

The algae toxins in the Iron Gate and Copco reservoirs now must be considered along with other pollutants by the California Water Board as it considers whether to grant the Clean Water Act certification needed by the Portland-based utility PacifiCorp to get a new operating license for four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath.

“Now PacifiCorp will have to clean up the toxic algae in the Klamath River,” said Klamath Riverkeeper Regina Chichizola, whose lawsuit against EPA led to reconsideration of the issue. “The state will have a hard time giving them certification.”

The EPA finding did not point to the dams as the source of the algae toxins. That is an issue for later consideration. But it did note that toxins were found at unhealthy levels in the reservoirs behind the dams, and not in the river downstream. Low levels have been found in fish, but not enough to warn people against eating them.

Maintaining that the algae has been found in the river since before the dams, PacifiCorp spokesman Paul Vogel said the utility company did not anticipate the toxins being a significant problem to getting clean water certification.

“We see it as a part of the process, and it is certainly an issue we study,” Vogel said. “We are looking at it and take it very seriously.”

The California Water Board is waiting for a specific proposal on modifications to the series of dams straddling the Oregon-California border before going ahead with the environmental analysis on certification, said board spokesman Bill Rukeyser

“The state of California is fairly concerned about the toxins from blue-green algae on the Klamath,” Rukeyser said. “Our Northcoast Regional Water Board has had to post the reservoirs and portions of the river for those toxins. That has been a concern of ours for several years.”

Alexis Strauss, EPA water division director for the Western states, said she did not think the algae toxins by themselves would prevent clean water certifications, but she noted they come on top of problems with warm water temperatures, low dissolved oxygen, and nutrients from agricultural runoff.

The toxins come from the blue-green algae known as Microcystis aeruginosa. Testing by the Karuk tribe showed levels exceeding World Health Organization guidelines in the Copco Reservoir in 2001. The Copco and Iron Gate reservoirs are regularly posted with health warnings, and last summer warnings were posted far downstream.

Microcystis aeruginosa commonly blooms in warm, slow-moving waters with high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients commonly running off agricultural land. The toxin affects the liver and can harm people and animals that swim in or drink tainted waters. The EPA noted there was a report of a dog suffering liver damage after swimming in Copco Reservoir.