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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Could The New Klamath Dam Removal Plan Kick-Start The Stalled Water Deals?

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Bobjgalindo/Wikipedia Commons
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The JC Boyle hydropower dam on the Klamath River is one of four that would be removed under a new plan.

In December, Congress adjourned without passing legislation to ratify a trio of agreements meant to end the long-standing water wars in the Klamath Basin. This essentially killed the deal, arrived at through years of painstaking negotiations between farmers, ranchers, tribes and other groups.

Now, there’s a move to demolish four dams on the Klamath River through a separate regulatory process, bypassing the need for Congressional approval.

As time was running out on the three Klamath agreements last year, supporters of the deal stressed how arduous it had been to arrive at consensus in the Klamath Basin’s bitter water disputes. Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath tribes, said that political efforts to strip dam removal from the hard-fought agreements threatened to torpedo the whole deal.

“It’s pretty clear that the parties are all on board,” Gentry said. “That’s a part of the package, and without that dam removal component the agreements will unravel.”

Tribes, fishermen and conservationists have wanted the dams removed to allow salmon to return to the upper reaches of the river. Greg Walden and other Republican members of Congress have vigorously opposed dam removal.

Now that the old Klamath agreement has officially expired, there appears to be an increased willingness to unbundle issues from the overall package and try to get them approved on their own.

The first move came this week when Oregon and California – along with federal agencies and PacifiCorp, the owner of the Klamath hydropower dams -- agreed in principal on a separate process to remove the dams by 2020. PacifiCorp representative Bob Gravley explains.

“What this move is intended to do is to take what has been the most contentious piece of the broader package, look for a way to move it in an alternative path that does not require Congressional involvement, so that we have a better chance not just to enact that piece, but also the broader settlement.”

The federal license to operate the dams has expired, and Gravley says PacificCorp would rather decommission the aging dams than pay to retrofit them to meet modern water quality and fish passage standards.

Craig Tucker, with the Karuk Tribe in northern California, is pleased that dam removal looks like it’s moving ahead.

“The removal of the lower four Klamath Dams is probably the biggest action of salmon restoration in history. So it’s certainly a great start.”

But, Tucker says, many other issues that had been hashed out in the rest of the Klamath deal still need to be dealt with.

Glen Spain, with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, agrees.

“We’ve got major water shortages in an over-appropriated basin, we’ve got multiple federal and tribal water claims that conflict, and we have a lot of problems that are still going to need some Congressional action,” he says.

Spain says it’s important to get the other agreements put in place.

Not everyone’s on board. The Hoopa Valley tribe in California didn’t sign the Klamath deal. The tribe’s attorney, Thomas Schlosser, praises the new dam removal initiative, but says the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement would have allowed too much water to be taken out of the system.

“We know how much water fish need,” Schlosser says. “And we know how much water is projected to be available after the diversions authorized by the KBRA. And it’s not enough for fish.”

Conservation groups such as WaterWatch and Oregon Wild have similar objections.

For Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who co-sponsored the failed bill to implement the three Klamath agreements, sees the new dam removal plan as a chance to revive the rest of the deal.

“I think that removing the issue of the dams from the legislation is a huge opportunity for us to work together on the balance of the package.”

But even some who supported the expired agreements think it’s going to be hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together. The Klamath tribe’s Don Gentry says tribal members will need to approve any new deal, and he says the landscape has changed since they signed onto the original agreement.

“I know that there are some issues that would need to be addressed,” Gentry says. “And we have some concerns and issues that need to move forward with any potential future settlement.”

For farmers and ranchers in the Basin, the new dam removal proposal is worrisome. Under the old deal, they agreed to dam removal in exchange for a promise of stable access to water. Now, it seems the dams will come down anyway. Scott White, with the Klamath Water Users Association, says that with that quid pro quo gone …

“There’s certainly a fear on our end that perhaps that’s not going to be the way it goes. We don’t want to be hung out, left in the weeds, so to speak. That’s ultimately our fear.”

Becky Hyde is a rancher with the Upper Klamath Water Users Association. She was a negotiator during the many years of struggle to reach the now-expired agreements. She hopes the trust and goodwill that developed between the parties during those negotiations will be enough to guide them to a new deal.

“It’s not the neighborhood’s fault that we couldn’t get things moving in Congress,” she says. “So we shouldn’t necessarily take that out on one another.”

The new dam-removal plan is not a slam dunk. There are several issues that could derail it, including access to public funding in California. But the parties to that plan intend to have a basic agreement worked out by the end of February.