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Stanford negotiator discusses compromise on environmental conflicts like Klamath dams

A photographer stands at the former site of Copco no. 2 dam on the Klamath River with Ward's Canyon in the distance in November 2023. The canyon was dewatered for decades after the dam was put in.
Erik Neumann
A photographer stands at the former site of Copco no. 2 dam on the Klamath River with Ward's Canyon in the distance. The canyon was dewatered for decades after the dam was put in.

Stanford's Uncommon Dialogue program is aimed at negotiating agreements between opposing groups on sustainability issues. How can these ideas be applied to dam removal on the Klamath River?

The biggest dam removal in U.S. history is happening now on the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border. The four Klamath dams are just a few of the 100,000 dams across the United States. Many of them are aging and questions often come up about whether to retrofit them, rehabilitate them or take them out altogether. JPR’s Erik Neumann recently spoke with Dan Reicher, with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He’s involved with a program called the Uncommon Dialogue. It’s aimed at negotiating agreements between opposing groups on sustainability issues and identifying federal funding to carry out projects. They discussed how this approach relates to dam removal on the Klamath River.

Erik Neumann: How would you describe the overall shift in attitude nationally around dams right now? And how their value is kind of being rethought?

Dan Reicher: As dams age, and the average age of dams in the U.S. is several decades, people are increasingly worried about the safety of dams. How do we put more money into ensuring that we don't have dam safety issues? The second is, from a renewable energy standpoint, hydropower is a big contributor to renewable, low carbon energy in the U.S., so the idea of retrofitting some dams to make electricity. Particularly dams that aren't coming down for any number of reasons, if you can put small turbines in those dams and make electricity, the dams are going to operate anyway, that makes sense. And for conservation, remove dams as they age; there are an increasing number of dams that should be taken down. They may pose safety risks, they may not have any serious, remaining use. And increasingly we're asking the question, should those dams come down? And the answer increasingly is they should. But I really want to stress it really is a mix of those three, because those 100,000 dams in the U.S. are in very, very different situations in terms of how useful they are and what we need to do next with them.

EN: The Klamath dams 50-year license expired in 2006, which is kind of what helped open the door for this opportunity to remove them. Your report talks about how there are many dams in this situation. Can you describe the national context about dam relicensing right now?

DR: Many, many dams are facing relicensing, which is the process you have to go through with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to keep operating a hydropower dam. Increasingly as the dams age as they require more and more investment, what comes up is by the owners of those dams is should we put the money and time into relicensing the dams? Or should we let them go and find another owner, find conservation groups that want to do something else with them? And increasingly that's raising the question, should some of them come down? And so, this question comes up more and more. On the other hand, there are a number of dams that are full speed ahead on relicensing because the owners, in fact, are making good money. And one thing I should stress about hydroelectricity is that it's increasingly seen as a complement to solar and wind. Solar and wind are intermittent sources. Hydro typically is a predictable source, runs 24/7 typically. And so how you integrate hydro with solar and wind is increasingly important.

EN: It strikes me that the Uncommon Dialogue approach could be useful for the Klamath Basin, particularly with the stakeholders in the Upper Basin after dam removal. I'm curious if you've been following that situation and if you're in touch with anyone there?

DR: The Klamath dams are really representative of what can happen when honest discussions go on, when dam owners make big decisions about where they want to go with things, when you bring local citizens into the mix. Now, I understand there are remaining controversies about taking those dams down -- the folks who live on the reservoirs, local communities -- a whole host of things. So, a process like this can be helpful at a more regional or local level to make sure you reach an agreement that’s as broadly accepted as possible. You're not always going to satisfy everyone, but if you make this kind of effort, it creates less bad blood and gives people some confidence that what they're going to end up with, when dams come down or dams get fixed up, you know, an increasing number of people are going to be okay with.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.