Klamath River dam removal deal signed by top federal, state officials
KLAMATH RIVER — It was déjà vu for what could be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.
The governors of California and Oregon stood side-by-side with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to sign their commitment to remove four hydroelectric dams from the 236-mile Klamath River.
But unlike the previous version of the agreement signed in 2010 that failed to gain traction in Congress, the new agreement signed Wednesday contained a new set of signatures, a new game plan, and a new federal entity to overcome.
Speaking to a crowd of about 200 people at the signing ceremony in Requa, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said it was “a day to reaffirm our shared commitment to restore and heal the Klamath Basin” and to recognize that “coming together is our only path forward.”
“While today is a historic day in the Klamath Basin, it is just the first of many steps needed to restore the water and the fisheries resources of this basin, as well as the communities that rely upon them,” she said.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, and several other state, federal, power, irrigator and environmental officials joined Jewell on Wednesday to sign the new Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. The agreement proposes to remove four Klamath River dams owned by PacifiCorp by 2020 to improve river flows and benefit fisheries and river communities.
“This is a good exercise of humankind correcting some of the mistakes that it’s made in the past,” Brown said while speaking on restoring the quality of the river. —… Now, putting it back together with science, with skill, with engineering, with a sense of beauty and sense of respect and obligation to the land that we’ve been given and the people that have taken care of it for so long — that’s a very profound challenge.
“… We’re starting to get it right after so many years of getting it wrong,” Brown continued.
While several Pacific Northwest tribes have yet to sign on to the new agreement, some tribal leaders stated that dam removal is a necessary step toward restoring the fish and habitat that are tied to their culture, economy and heritage.
“Those fish need to come back to our homeland in order for us to feel whole, in order for us to be the people our Creator intended us to be,” Klamath Tribes of Oregon Chairman Don Gentry said. “It’s a part of who we are. It’s a part of what’s been lost to us.”
A new, separate agreement — the 2016 Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement — was also signed on Wednesday as a way to help Klamath Basin irrigators deal with the reintroduction of fish runs in the Upper Klamath Basin.
The new Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement signed Wednesday is the second version of the agreement to emerge in the past six years.
The first version was signed in February 2010 by over 40 tribal, governmental and special interest officials.
The former agreement was also signed in combination with its companion deal — the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement — which aimed to provide water assurances to Klamath Basin farmers and irrigators after tribes were given senior water rights in the basin.
The agreements were lauded by supporters as providing a path to restore hundreds of miles of fish habitat and end decades of water rights disputes between tribes and irrigators in the Upper Klamath Basin. But as these agreements failed to gain momentum in Congress, a new agreement — the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement — was drafted and eventually signed in April 2014.
This third agreement would have required ranchers and farmers on the upper basin to reduce water withdrawals to increase flows into Upper Klamath Lake by 30,000 acre feet and mitigate impacts to endangered sucker fish and salmon that tribes are seeking to protect.
All three agreements required Congressional approval, but failed to progress for six years due to opposition from House Republicans such as 1st District California Congressman Doug LaMalfa. As a result, the basin restoration agreement expired on Jan. 1, and the agreements seemed to have unraveled.
But in February, efforts to restore the hydroelectric settlement agreement were renewed. What resulted from these closed-door discussions during the past two months was a new version of it, which would not require Congressional approval. The new version of that agreement circumvents Congress by working to decommission the dams through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The new agreement requires PacifiCorp, a Portland-based energy company, to transfer ownership of the dams to the newly created nonprofit, Klamath River Renewal Corporation.
PacifiCorp has signed both versions of the agreement.
On July 1, the nonprofit is set to submit an application to the commission to have the dams removed.
Jewell said that the scientifically proven benefits of dam removal combined with the economic infeasibility of PacifiCorp constructing required fish-friendly upgrades to its dams, such as fish ladders, makes her confident that the application will pass through the commission.
“The decision will rest with FERC, but we will be weighing in in a powerful way with our views as the Department of the Interior of why we will believe dam removal is the right thing to do for the Klamath River,” Jewell said.
The project is set to cost around $450 million, with PacifiCorp ratepayers contributing $200 million and California contributing $250 million through its 2014 water bond, Proposition 1.
In a statement released Wednesday, LaMalfa reasserted his opposition to the hydroelectric settlement agreement, stating that California taxpayers are paying to remove four dams owned by American businessman Warren Buffett. PacifiCorp is a subsidiary of Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy.
“The overwhelming majority of residents of the Klamath Basin, those who are actually impacted, have been cut out of this process in favor of environmental extremists, bureaucrats in Sacramento and Washington, and a taxpayer bailout for billionaire Warren Buffett,” LaMalfa said.
U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman said the impacts of dams to Klamath River fish have already been shown in the past 20 years through fisheries disasters, fish kills, disease, and economic impacts to fishing communities as well as the federal government, which has spent millions of dollars in emergency relief funds.
“But we don’t have to keep doing the same thing over and over again,” Huffman said during Wednesday’s signing ceremony. “We don’t have to watch helplessly as our fisheries decline past the point of no return. Tearing out these four dams on the Klamath River will be a huge leap forward.”
In an interview with the Times-Standard after the ceremony, Huffman said that it will be “highly likely” that lawsuits will be filed to challenge the agreement. Huffman said he also expects “poison pill riders” to be attached to Congressional bills aimed at stopping the agreements.
“I’ll consider it my job to be ever vigilant for that,” he said.
Jewell also defended dam removal, saying that more than 50 scientific reports, independent panels and peer review “point us to the conclusion that the largest limiting factor for the Klamath fishery are the dams.”
Following Brown’s comments about the state of the river before European colonization, Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke said that the current state of the river and fish is the result of “poor custodianship” and “letting the mighty dollar get in front of them.”
“What’s sacred needs to be kept sacred,” O’Rourke said. —… It’s going to take traditional knowledge as well as modern science to restore this great river to its historical state the best that we can. … The path that we’re taking is a sacred path.”