Toxic Algae Poisons Klamath River and Two Reservoirs

SANTA ROSA, California, June 18, 2008 (ENS) - A California Superior Court judge has invited the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to exercise its authority to regulate water quality to rid the Klamath River of toxic algae.

The ruling by Judge Elaine Rushing comes in a lawsuit filed by Klamath Riverkeeper, the Karuk Tribe, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, PCFFA, against the board.

The groups filed suit last August after the board rejected their petition to regulate toxic waste discharges from PacifiCorp's Klamath River Dams.

Owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, PacifiCorp bills itself as "one of the lowest-cost electricity producers in the United States." PacifiCorp is a multi-state public utility that operates as Pacific Power in California.

In 2004, the Karuk Tribe determined that the massive blooms of blue-green algae behind PacifiCorp's Iron Gate and Copco dams was the toxic algae Microcystis aeruginosa.

This algae secretes a potent liver toxin known as microcystin.

Since the discovery, tests of these reservoirs have shown some of the highest recorded levels of the toxic algae in the world, the Karuk Tribe said in a statement in April. Levels of mycrocystin can exceed water quality standards set by the World Health Organization by as much as 4,000 times.

When no agency took responsibility to regulate the toxin, the Karuk, PCFFA, and Klamath Riverkeeper took action.

"We will not sit idly by and let Buffett's dams poison the Klamath River, while California does nothing to protect the people of the Klamath from this toxic pollution," said Klamath Riverkeeper Regina Chichizola.

The groups first petitioned the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to regulate the toxic discharge from the dams into the river under California's Porter-Cologne Water Quality Act.

The Board argued that they were pre-empted by the Federal Power Act from taking such an action.

The groups then challenged the board's argument in Superior Court.

According to the groups' attorney Michael Lozeau, "With this ruling the court invites the board to rethink its assertion that it is powerless to regulate water quality and protect the public from PacifiCorp's toxic pollution of the Klamath River."

A report issued by the Karuk Tribe in April shows that the flesh of yellow perch, a popular game fish in PacifiCorp's Klamath reservoirs, is contaminated by the microcystin.

The report is based on toxicological analyses performed by the California Department of Fish and Game under contract to the California Water Resources Control Board. Funding for the study was provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The report concludes that the public should by warned by health officials to not eat fish from the reservoirs during summer months when algae blooms are most pervasive.

The discovery of Microcystis aeruginosa has led regulatory agencies to post signs warning the public not to touch the water of the Klamath River for over 200 miles from Copco Reservoir to the ocean.

"The state is warning people to not contact the Klamath River during the height of fishing season and during our most important ceremonies. However, our medicine men are obligated to bathe in the Klamath River in late summer in preparation for our World Renewal Ceremonies," says Leaf Hillman, Karuk ceremonial leader and vice-chairman.

The judge's ruling gives the board 90 days to reconsider the groups' petition and act. A decision is expected late this summer.

If the board accepts the petition and acts to regulate PacifiCorp's toxic discharge, the ruling could result in the Regional Board's issuance of water quality requirements and enforcement orders requiring PacifiCorps to reduce toxic pollution of the Klamath, as well as harmful temperature and oxygen-depleted releases.

Chichizola said, "It's high time that somebody stood up to PacifiCorp and held them accountable for their destruction of our river. The Water Board should use its clear authority to protect the public now."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just listed PacifiCorp's reservoirs on the Klamath River as impaired due to toxic algae and has committed to creating a pollution cleanup plan to address the issue.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.
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