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Judge Tells Regulators to Reconsider Klamath algae

By JEFF BARNARD / Associated Press
06/17/2008

A judge has ordered California water regulators to reconsider whether they have the power to regulate toxic algae coming from behind hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River.

Iron Gate Dam

Indian tribes, salmon fishermen and the group Klamath Riverkeeper have been campaigning to force Portland-based utility PacifiCorp to remove the dams to help struggling salmon runs. One of their arguments is that toxic algae growing in reservoirs behind the dams is bad for fish as well as people.

The Karuk Tribe, Klamath Riverkeeper and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations had petitioned the North Coast Water Quality Control Board in Santa Rosa, Calif., to control the algae as a toxic waste, but the board turned them down, saying federal dam regulators considering a new license for the dams had authority over the issue.

Sonoma County Superior Judge Elaine Rushing ruled Thursday that the water board must reconsider in light of the Clean Water Act, which generally gives states enforcement authority over water quality, and recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings applying state law to federal hydroelectric projects.

Catherine Kuhlman, executive officer of the water board, said they would do the additional legal analysis.

Kuhlman said if the state of California agreed to demand that PacifiCorp get a permit to allow toxic algae to flow out of the reservoirs, it could ultimately lead to a finding the dams have to come out, for lack of any other effective way of dealing with the pollution.

Michael Lozeau, attorney for the river groups, said they felt the board could impose some conditions on PacifiCorp to limit algae growth without running up against the Federal Power Act.

PacifiCorp, which is seeking a new operating license for the dams, has maintained that the algae has been in the river a long time, occurs elsewhere, and they are funding studies to better understand and control it.

Kuhlman said the water board has found that while the algae is fed by the high levels of nutrients from volcanic soils and agricultural runoff in the water, the dams are a factor in producing the elevated levels.

The algae is Microcystis aeruginosa, which has been found blooming in the Iron Gate and Copco reservoirs near the Oregon border each summer since 2001.

The algae commonly blooms in warm, slow-moving waters where there is a lot of phosphorus and nitrogen. The toxin affects the liver and can harm people and animals that come in contact with it.

“We believe the state inherently has and always has that right, and in this case the obligation, to protect public health and lower-river fisheries,” said Glen Spain of the fishermen’s group.