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The Klamath Example: How to Tear Down a Dam

OPB | Feb. 14, 2008 midnight | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:39 p.m.

How many constituencies does it take to demolish a dam?

…in five easy steps.

Step 1: Wait until the dam’s operating license is up for renewal (once every 50 years).

Step 2: Create consensus among everyone affected by the dam. Include:

  • Two state governments
  • Three county governments
  • Four Native Tribes
  • Nearly a dozen conservation groups
  • Federal Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, and Fish and Wildlife
  • Farmers
  • Ranchers
  • Recreational boaters
Convince farmers to accept a ten-fold hike in their irrigation power bills, and to adhere to additional Endangered Species Act regulations. Convince Tribes and environmentalists not to sue the farmers if some endangered salmon are accidentally killed. And, according to one enviromental activist I talked to, tell recreational boaters that… not everyone can get what they want.

Step 3: Determine how to deal with the millions of pounds of sediment collecting behind the dams.

Step 4: Get the owner of the dam — in this case Pacificorp, a.k.a. Pacific Power — to agree.

And, finally, Step 5: Determine who will pay the tab ($200-500 million dollars by one estimate).

It’s a tedious and glacier-slow process. But there are four dams on the Klamath River that have actually arrived at Step 4, and are lobbying hard. It’s not a done deal, but things are progressing enough for one local environmentalist to say “it’s only a matter of time.”

And if it does goes through, according to The New York Times, it would represent “one of the most far-reaching efforts ever to reverse the harm done by human intervention on a river.”

What would it take to get Pacific Power on board with this agreement? And if this fragile alliance can stick together, are there lessons here for other seemingly intractable environmental questions?

Photo credit: DaseinDesign / Flickr / Creative Commons

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