Plans for the removal of three dams on the Klamath River in California cleared another regulatory hurdle when state officials released a draft environmental impact report that found no significant long-term water quality concerns.

The proposed EIR will be available for public comment through Feb. 26.

The 1,800-page report completed by the state Water Resources Control Board covered everything from water quality to wildfires to whether the Coho salmon – a critical part of the restoration process that spawned the dam demolition plan in the first place – are even native to the project area.

Officials with the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corp, the entity that would take control of the dams from PacifiCorp during the decommissioning process, stated in a press release that they were pleased with the “favorable” report.

“This draft report is a key step to completing this critical project and rehabilitating one of the great rivers of the American west,” said Mark Bransom, chief executive officer with KRRC. “It’s a sign of meaningful progress and I look forward to a thorough review of the report and its proposals.”

Approval from state water officials is required for the removal of the Iron Gate, Copco No. 1 and Copco No. 2 dams. If the draft EIR becomes final, KRRC would be granted a Clean Water Act Sec. 401 permit, one of several regulatory requirements.

The project has already received a similar 401 permit certification from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for the removal of the John C. Boyle dam in southern Oregon.

Among the key issues addressed by the draft EIR are what happens when 15.1 million cubic yards of sediment stored in reservoirs behind the dams is released during the breeching process. The state estimate is significantly lower than other studies that peg the sediment deposits behind the dams in excess of 20 million cubic yards.

Additionally, none of the sediment is considered toxic or having excessive levels of contaminants such as heavy metals, according to the draft EIR. Pressure sprayers mounted on barges would begin the process of drawing down the reservoirs during the winter rainy season in a process called “sediment jetting.” Copco 1 would be the first reservoir drained if the project is approved by federal regulatory officials.

“In the long term there would be no significant impact due to … the release of sediments currently trapped behind the dams,” the report stated. Long-term is defined as a period of 24 months, at the end of which the project is expected to meet federal water quality standards.

Frank Shrier, a fisheries biologist with SWCA, an environmental consulting firm hired by the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors to further efforts in opposition to the dam removal, said he was surprised that the draft EIR “glossed” over critical elements of the sediment release.

“There are some prime spawning and holding areas for fish that are going to be filled in,” he said. “If all the sediment makes it down the delta – which it will eventually – it is going to be even harder for fish to get in because it will block off access when there is low flow in the Klamath.”

At a special public meeting of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors last summer when SWCA was first introduced, in addition to the sediment release, many longtime Klamath River residents insisted that few Coho salmon ever made it further upstream than the site of the existing Iron Gate Reservoir, which is the first dam that fish encounter on the river. The earthen dam was built in the 1960s.

The draft EIR, while acknowledging that historical data is “inconclusive,” stated that, in addition to mining tailings compromising historic fish runs, the science from 100 years ago is incomplete, failing to recognize that there were actually nine different species of salmon found in the Klamath River Basin, which also includes the Trinity, Scott, Shasta, and Salmon rivers.

“Although Coho salmon are native to the Klamath River, documentation of Coho salmon is scarce prior to the early 1900s due, in part, to the apparent difficulty of those providing written records in recognizing that there were different species of salmon inhabiting the rivers of the area,” the report stated. “Available data suggests that Coho salmon were in both mainstem and tributary reaches of the Klamath River upstream and including Spencer Creek.”

Spencer Creek comes in above the JC Boyle dam in Oregon, above all four dams proposed for removal.

The draft EIR also addressed other water quality issues, including water temperature, dissolved oxygen and the formation of blue-green algae, which makes much of the Klamath River unsafe for swimming during the summer months.

The return to a “free-flowing” river is expected to mitigate many of these issues, according to the report, which also noted the complex nature of river ecology.

Water released from the reservoirs in late spring, for example, is typically cooler than what would naturally occur because the reservoirs retain some of the cold water received in winter. Conversely, water released from the reservoirs in the early fall is typically warmer than what naturally occur because the reservoirs still contain water that was heated during the summer months.

That can affect everything from insect life cycles to fish migration.

The reservoirs also provide critical fire suppression support as the Klamathon fire last year clearly demonstrated. The draft EIR acknowledged the seriousness of the problem.

“Response and travel times between water fills for helicopter crews would be expected to increase with the loss of the reservoirs,” the report stated. “Wildfires can spread at a rapid speed and involve high risks.”

The draft EIR suggests alternatives that include using pools along the river that are at least three feet deep that could be accessed by helicopter crews as well as the use of “dry hydrants” where firefighters use truck-mounted pumps and fire hoses to connect the hydrants to the river, creating a system that can supply an estimated 1,500 gallons per minute.

The use of dry hydrants is hotly contested by Klamath River residents who insist that the hydrants are a poor alternative to the existing reservoirs. Several recent studies have suggested that wildfires are only expected to worsen in Siskiyou County in the future.

A copy of the draft EIR can be found online and at several other locations, including the Mt. Shasta library. See related article for more details and information about upcoming public meetings.