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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Feds Deal Blow To Klamath Dam Removal Plan

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The J.C. Boyle Dam is one of four aging dams on the Klamath River to be removed under a plan that federal energy regulators have just made more complicated.

A decade-old plan to remove four dams on the Klamath River just hit a major road bump.

Conservation groups and tribes along the river have long sought to remove the dams to save dwindling salmon runs.

Pacificorp – which owns the aging hydroelectric dams -- decided in 2007 that the cost to bring them up to current requirements was prohibitive. The utility agreed to surrender its licenses to operate the dams so they could be taken out.

The most recent plan created a non-profit corporation — the Klamath River Renewal Corporation — that would accept those licenses and oversee the dam removal, relieving Pacificorp of liability for damages or cost overruns.

Now, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has raised questions about the adequacy of KRRC's funding and dam removal expertise. FERC ruled Thursday that Pacificorp must remain a co-licensee, sharing liability during the removal.

The utility’s Bob Gravely says that complicates the current agreement between Pacificorp, Oregon, California, the Karuk and Yurok tribes and several conservation groups. The deal hinges on the utility being able to pass that liability on to the non-profit corporation.

"We remain committed to working with those same parties to keep moving forward here," Gravely told JPR. "But we certainly see the ruling today as not consistent with the agreement we have and we’re going to have to figure out how we reconcile that."

Reaction to the decision was quick in coming. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has spent years helping shepherd various versions of a Klamath water agreement through Congress. The Oregon Democrat slammed the FERC ruling.

“FERC’s new order has lots of technicalities to sift through in these documents. However, in keeping with the pattern of the Trump Administration, it appears FERC has made the worst of all possible decisions," Wyden said in an emailed statement. "I look forward to working with all parties to find a path forward that honors the intent of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement that signatories have been working towards for more than a decade.”

For his part, Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa, from California's First Congressional District, sees the FERC decision as the beginning of the end for the dam removal project.

"This Order clears the way to stop this terrible project without wasting more of California taxpayer funds or Oregon ratepayer dollars," LaMalfa said in a press release. "Pacificorp should instead pursue relicensing of all four Klamath dams, ensuring the Basin continues to receive ample carbon-free, clean power for years to come."

LaMalfa, along with the Klamath and Siskiyou County Boards of Supervisors and other local officials, has long opposed dam removal, saying the project is an expensive boondoggle that jeopardizes irrigation supplies for local agriculture.

But Craig Tucker, a natural resource consultant representing the Karuk tribe, says removing the dams is crucial to saving the salmon fishery the tribes rely on.

"We're really at a place where we have to do something huge to restore this fishery," he says. "And that opportunity presents itself with dam removal."

Tucker says he remains optimistic that, despite the regulatory setback, the deal can be salvaged.

"I'm very optimistic that we will get to dam removal," he says, "but we do have some work to do with Pacificorp to make sure their concerns about liability issues are addressed."