New Agreement Bypasses Congress for Dam Removal by 2020
The largest dam removal project in history is closer than ever. On April 6, state, federal and Native American tribal representatives joined dam owner PacifiCorp, water users, and conservation organizations to sign an agreement that seeks to remove four Klamath River dams by 2020 and resolve longstanding water disputes.
“This agreement is the result of more than a decade of protests, litigation, and lengthy settlement negotiations between diverse stakeholders,” said Leaf Hillman, director of the Karuk Tribe’s Department of Natural Resources. “It represents the greatest salmon restoration action in U.S. history.”
The agreement is an amended version of the 2010 Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) signed in 2010 by many of the same stakeholders. Unlike the 2010 version, the revised KHSA would result in dam removal without an act of Congress using existing legal authorities of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions (FERC). These are the same legal authorities that have allowed dams to be removed elsewhere in the country including PacifiCorp’s Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington State.
According to the revised KHSA, parties agree to the creation of a new dam removal entity “on or around July 1, 2016” which will accept the dam operation license and title for the dams from PacifiCorp. The new entity will be responsible for pursuing an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “surrender” and remove the dams with a 2020 target date.
“This historic agreement will enable Oregon and California and the interested parties to get these four dams finally removed and the Klamath River restored to its pristine beauty,” said Governor Brown, during the signing ceremony.
Another key provision of the amended KHSA commits Oregon, California, Federal Parties, and other entities to concurrently enter into a separate agreement—the 2016 Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement (KPFA). This agreement will help Klamath Basin irrigators avoid regulatory impacts, to the extent possible, associated with the return of fish runs to the Upper Klamath Basin after dam removal. The KPFA also commits parties to continue to work toward a permanent solution to water conflicts left unresolved by the amended KHSA.
Impacts of Dam Removal
The benefits and drawbacks of Klamath River dam removal are documented in countless peer-reviewed studies. It will restore the Klamath River fishery by reopening 420 miles of historic fish habitat and improving water quality. The production of Chinook salmon will increase by an estimated 81 percent.
Restored fisheries will improve access to healthy traditional food sources for Klamath Basin tribal members. Lost access to these foods is linked to health problems among tribal members including heart disease, diabetes, and chronic hunger.
Dam removal itself will create more than 1,000 temporary jobs. Improved fisheries and water quality will create countless permanent jobs in the tourism and sport fishing industries. The commercial fishing industry will benefit on more than 700 miles of California and Oregon coastline where Klamath River salmon migrate.
Dam removal will eliminate stagnant reservoirs on the Klamath River that generate some of the highest concentrations of toxic algae ever recorded. During recent summers, algae released from the dams has posed a public health risk along the entire lower Klamath River to the ocean.
Some landowners on these reservoirs are concerned that their property values will decrease when the reservoirs are gone. Indeed, some waterfront homes will cease to be waterfront homes. Economic analyses have not determined the net impact of dam removal on property values. Other reservoir property owners support dam removal.
“I would much prefer a clean, healthy river full of fish to toxic green reservoirs,” said Tom Fogarty who owns a home and property on Copco Reservoir immediately above one of the four dams slated for removal. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid and cannot wait for salmon populations to recover.”
Water quality in the river below the dams will be impaired with high concentrations of
sediments for two to three months following dam removal. However, water quality will improve in the long run due to the elimination of reservoirs that generate toxic algae.
Dam removal will also minimize electricity rates because removing the dams is less expensive than bringing them into compliance with current laws requiring fish passage and water quality improvements.
How We Got Here:
Dead Fish, Toxic Algae, Protests, Litigation & Negotiation
In September 2002, more than 60,000 Klamath River salmon died after the Bush Administration ignored recommendations of its own scientists and limited water releases into the Klamath River. This tragedy resulted in a historic movement for dam removal led by Native American tribes and supported by conservation and fishing organizations.
Tribal members organized multiple large rallies at PacifiCorp’s offices in Portland demanding that the company support dam removal. In 2004, tribal members brought their concerns to Scotland where PacifiCorp’s parent company, Scottish Power, was holding a shareholder meeting. Scottish Power quickly sold PacifiCorp to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Dam removal protests continued with tribal members confronting Warren Buffet during a shareholders’ meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.
Meanwhile, scientists with the Karuk and Yurok Tribes collected extensive data showing that the reservoirs behind the Klamath River dams generate some of the highest concentrations of toxic algae ever recorded. Relying on this scientific evidence, Klamath Riverkeeper settled litigation in 2008 compelling the U.S. EPA to regulate toxic algae on the Klamath River.
In addition, Tribes defended the call for fish passage above the dams in court, resulting in a requirement that, at a minimum, fish ladders be installed if the dams were to be relicensed. Fish passage and water quality requirements meant that the cost of keeping the dams would likely far outweigh the costs of removing them. These facts helped compel PacifiCorp to support dam removal as part of a comprehensive settlement agreement.
In 2010, after years of arduous negotiations between former adversaries, more than forty diverse stakeholder groups signed the historic “Klamath Agreements.” This included the original KHSA (a revised version of which was signed this April) laying out a path for dam removal. The original KHSA was linked to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) which included a comprehensive water sharing agreement and habitat restoration projects. In 2013, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon negotiated a separate water sharing agreement with irrigators called the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement (UKBA) which was linked to the original 2010 Klamath Agreements.
Between 2012 and 2015, diverse stakeholders urged members of Congress to enact legislation that would implement the Klamath Agreements. Due in large part to opposition from Congressmen Doug LaMalfa of California and Greg Walden of Oregon, Congress failed to meet a December 2015 deadline to enact the Klamath Agreements.
Carrots, Sticks & Cooperation = New Dam Deal
Early in 2016, PacifiCorp indicated that it could support a stand-alone dam removal agreement if it included liability protection and cost-caps similar to those that would have been provided by the more comprehensive Klamath Agreements. Their decision was undoubtedly influenced by a $250M fund within the 2014 California Water Bond that could be used for dam removal and $200M collected from electricity ratepayers as approved by the California and Oregon Public Utilities Commissions.
At the same time, the California Water Board resumed a Clean Water Act certification process for Klamath River dam relicensing. This process had previously been held in abeyance pending the outcome of Congressional legislation, but it would ultimately require PacifiCorp to bring its dams into compliance with existing water quality standards. If it is possible to bring the dams into compliance with water quality standards, PacifiCorp has yet to demonstrate how, and at what cost to its electricity ratepayers.
Thanks to cooperation from PacifiCorp, signatories to the 2010 Klamath Agreements reconvened in early 2016 to negotiate the amended KHSA that was signed in April. Klamath Riverkeeper joined the negotiations to amend the KHSA despite not signing the Klamath Agreements in 2010.
Over the next year, parties to the revised KHSA will work to ensure key benchmarks are met—including the creation of a dam removal entity that will accept title to the dams, filing of a dam surrender application to the FERC, and processing the application.
Although support for Klamath River dam removal is stronger than ever, this effort continues to face opposition from people who are either misinformed, or are ideologically opposed to dam removal. Despite ample peer-reviewed scientific evidence to the contrary, Congressman Doug LaMalfa and Siskiyou County supervisors continue to mislead their constituents by asserting that dam removal will harm salmon populations, electricity ratepayers, water quality, and downriver property owners.
“We must accept that a certain number of fact-resistant elected officials will base their opinions on ideology rather than a preponderance of hard scientific evidence,” said Craig Tucker, Natural Resources Policy Advocate for the Karuk Tribe. “At the same time, we will continue to correct misinformation so stakeholders and the general public can make informed decisions.”
Communities that depend on a healthy Klamath River for food, jobs, recreation and cultural survival have accomplished what seemed impossible to most outside observers. With continued dedication of diverse stakeholders, the Klamath River will be wild and free by 2020.
The NEC and Tim McKay were instrumental in bringing local and even national attention to the fish kill on the Klamath river and the fact that the dams and low water flows were the culprits. Led by McKay, the NEC remained at the forefront and was in the original Klamath settlement group with Tim McKay as lead negotiator until his untimely death in 2006.
In 2010, NEC’s Board of Directors voted to withdraw from negotiations without signing the Klamath Agreements due to concerns that they did not ensure adequate water in the river for fish or the Klamath National Wildlife Refuges, which provide critical habitat for migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway. Despite the five year delay by Congress, during which Klamath champions Troy Fletcher and Zeke Grader passed on, we are heartened by recent movement toward dam removal without the need for Congressional approval. Continued vigilance is required.
-Larry Glass, NEC Board President