Optimism for Klamath Dam Removal Through FERC Process

February, 2017

Excerpted from the January 5, 2017 episode of the NEC’s EcoNews Report. Listen to the whole show online at www.yournec.org/econews-report.

Over the course of the last century or so, the American West has gone from being a scene of a veritable frenzy of dam building, to actually beginning to dismantle and remove some of those dams. Some have done great harm to fisheries, river ecosystems and human and natural communities that depend on them. Yet these questions remain no less contentious today than they were 50 years ago. In some ways it appears our political leaders want to go back to building big dams. They’ve just passed a bill designed to allow and fund two new dams here in California. But at the same time, the impacts of dams on the Snake, Klamath and Eel Rivers, has never been clearer. The fight is really on to get destructive dams out of some of our most important Western rivers.

Craig Tucker, the Natural Resources Policy Advocate for the Karuk Tribe and a long-time participant in the Klamath Dam removal process, joined host Scott Greacen in the KHSU studios recently to discuss updates on the Klamath Dam removal process.

Tucker states, “In a lot of ways things are, I have to say, on track. For years we’ve been trying to find a path forward on dam removal. We had negotiated a complicated agreement that involved dam owner PacifiCorps, irrigators in the upper basin, tribes on the river, conservation groups, et cetera, only to have Congress leave us standing at the altar.”

Without Congressional authorization, the deals couldn’t move forward, but PacifiCorps remained interested in dam removal. “So we restructured the dam removal agreement to simply go back through…the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. We’ve created a non-profit entity called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation and…PacifiCorps will transfer the lower four dams to this non-profit. The proposal to transfer the dams and decommission them has been sent to FERC for consideration.

“So things are really on track to remove the dams; the removal date continues to be 2020. In a lot of ways, a lot of the hard work that a lot of folks have done together over the years is starting to bear fruit,” Tucker stated, adding, “Although now we have to contend with a new problem, and that may be the Trump administration whose views on this issue are really unknown to us.”

The recent state Water Board hearings garnered input from the public that will be considered when writing the permit for dam removal.

Tucker: “As with any kind of project that affects water quality, you have to demonstrate compliance with the federal Clean Water Act and get a permit— a 401 permit—[401 is the name of] the section of the Clean Water Act where it’s described.”

Greacen inquired, “So I’m assuming then that the Karuk Tribe and proponents of Klamath dam removal are supporting the issuance of this permit and a finding that taking the dams out is going to promote and protect water quality?”

To which Tucker replied, “Absolutely, I mean, we accept and realize that these dams hold back a significant amount of sediment. We think that the release of sediment when the dams are removed will have a short-term negative impact on the river but because of the long-term extraordinary benefits it’ll be worth it.”

“We have, now, a few examples of successful dam removal projects,” Greacen commented. “The Condit Dam that was removed from the White Salmon River in Washington, and of course the Elwah dams that were removed in Olympic National Park. What do we know from those experiments about how that sediment flow happens?”

Tucker: “Well, it’s remarkable and I would say two things. Modelers are able to pretty accurately —based on particle size and volume of sediment in the flow of a river—predict the behavior of sediment being released. So we feel confident that we know what’s going to happen.”

He continued, “And the other thing I would say is the response of the fish and of the river ecosystem is exceeding expectations. I mean, the year after they removed those dams you’ve got fish spawning above the dams. And that’s way ahead of schedule. So we have very big expectations.”