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PacifiCorp Pursues Dam Removal After Collapse Of Klamath Legislation


The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen frequent water crises between the farming, ranching, tribal and environmental communities.

The Klamath Basin spans northern California and southern Oregon and has seen frequent water crises between the farming, ranching, tribal and environmental communities.

Devan Schwartz

PacifiCorp is now trying to reach a quick deal with federal and state regulators to remove four aged dams on the Klamath River.

The aggressive action by the big western utility follows the failure of Congress over the last four years to pass sweeping legislation aimed at ending the water wars in the Klamath Basin that straddles the states of Oregon and California.

Supporters of restoring free flows on one of the West Coast’s biggest salmon rivers are cheered by the prospect of finally seeing the dams demolished. But Klamath Basin farmers say they’re worried they will be left behind without any of the water guarantees included in the federal legislation.

Searching For Klamath Water Agreement

  • PacifiCorp still wants to remove four old dams on the Klamath River, despite failure of federal legislation.
  • Oregon official says there should be provisions in the deal to help farmers and tribes in the Klamath Basin.

That legislation collapsed last month in large part because of Republican opposition to language that would have helped speed removal of the four PacifiCorp dams, three in California and one in Oregon.

But, ironically, it may be that a move toward dam removal is the first major result to come out the failure of of the legislation.

Bob Gravely, a PacifiCorp spokesman, said  removing the dams is “still our preferred path.”

The utility is talking with officials from Oregon, California and the federal government on modifications to one of the key pacts – the Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement – aimed at ending the pitched fights over the river’s future.

Gravely said the utility wants to quickly reach a deal to access some $250 million from a California water bond approved by voters that could help pay for dam removal. The utility is also facing pressure from California’s decision to restart action on a new water quality permit for the dams, something that PacifiCorp could be hard-pressed to win.

“If we’re going to move forward” with a new version of the hydropower settlement agreement, Gravely said, “we think it has to happen quickly … I think months.”

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, whose coastal district includes the mouth of the Klamath River, said he’s optimistic that the congressional failure of the agreement puts new pressure on PacifiCorp to move toward removing the dams.

“Frankly, I’m more encouraged than I’ve been in a while,” Hoffman said in an interview with OPB. “I see more possibilities for dam removal and restoration, without this paralysis that, frankly, this agreement had brought us to. Everything was hanging on a congressional action that wasn’t going to happen.”

Richard Whitman, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s natural resources adviser, said the states and U.S.Department of Interior officials are close to reaching an agreement with PacifiCorp on how to move forward with dam removal. Ultimately, it could take the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission four years to issue an order allowing the demolition of the dams.

However, Whitman said officials in both states are determined to make sure irrigators and tribes are not left behind.

“Gov. Brown is very concerned about the stability of the communities in the basin, both irrigated agriculture and the Native American tribes,” he said, adding that they want to ensure that a hydropower agreement also include some assurances for the tribes and farmers.

Whitman said he is talking to Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, and other members of the state’s congressional delegation about moving forward with a bill that would deal with some of those issues. Among other things, the irrigators have been seeking reliable access to water while the Klamath tribes are seeking a large grant that would help restore their historic lands.

Greg Addington, a consultant for the Klamath Water Users Association, said he learned just in the last week about PacifiCorp’s determination to move ahead in cutting a deal on dam removal.

“It’s sort of our worst fear,” he said. “We’re all worried about getting left behind.”

Addington said the water users have received assurances that they won’t be forgotten. But he said he thought they were unlikely to get an agreement as good as the one promised in the legislation that Congress failed to enact.

The Klamath water users have asked the other parties involved in the Klamath water pacts to meet in Sacramento on Feb. 3 to talk about plans to modify the hydropower settlement act.

Besides issues facing irrigators and the tribes, the utility has been particularly concerned with ensuring that it receives liability protection against lawsuits stemming from damage caused by dam removal, such as problems caused by sediment that has built up behind the dams.

Gravely, the PacifiCorps spokesman, said that if the utility can’t get agreement on a plan for dam removal, it will seek a new license allowing it to continue operating the dams. Critics of the dams, however, say they doubt the utility can meet new environmental standards – including improved fish passage – that have been put in place since the dams last received a license in 1956.

Thomas Schlosser, a Seattle attorney representing the Hoopa Valley Tribe in in legal action aimed at speeding dam removal, said he thought the utility was fine with the long congressional inaction over ratifying the Klamath basin agreements because it could continue to operate the dams under the old license.

Now, said Schlosser, there’s an opportunity to get moving on the hydropower settlement. 

“Dam removal is really key” to restoring the river, he said, “and we’re finally close to it.”

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