Now Playing:



Clock Ticking For Klamath Dams

As early as this month, groups that once called each other enemies will sign a pair of agreements changing the course of history for the Klamath Basin.

It's desert farm country that straddles the Oregon-California border.

The groups have agreed to rip out four dams on the Klamath River and compensate farmers when there's not enough water.

The pacts have been a long time coming, but it's not over yet. In fact, multiple hurdles remain and it will take at least ten years for the dams to come out. Chris Lehman met with some of the people most affected and has this report.

I'm standing on the banks of the John Boyle Reservoir in western Klamath County. This placid pool is used by boaters and anglers alike.

 J.C. Boyle Reservoir
The John Boyle Reservoir lies upstream from a dam that would be removed from the Klamath River.

Environmentalists envision a free-flowing stream full of salmon and eagles circling overhead. Ten years ago that would have seemed impossible.

Ten years from now, it could happen, if a complex agreement to rip up four dams along the Klamath River moves ahead.

Dean Brockbank: “PacifiCorps for many years, frankly, was not interested in discussing a dam removal scenario.”

Dean Brockbank was PacifiCorp's lead negotiator on the Klamath Dams removal discussion. He says the utility came to be more accepting of dam removal when it looked at the costs of re-licensing them with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The company would have had to make costly upgrades to fish passage facilities. It just didn't pencil out. It would be cheaper to simply take the dams out. But Brockbank says it still comes with a cost.

Dean Brockbank: “What we lose is clean, carbon-free generation. And that's a significant loss.”

It's a trade-off environmental and tribal groups are willing to make. Jeff Mitchell of the Klamath Tribal Council says giving fish free-flowing passage would be hugely beneficial to tribal members.

Jeff Mitchell: “When the creator put us here he also provided us with a resource that sustained us for thousands of years and I literally wouldn't be here if it wasn't for those fish, my people wouldn't be here, so we feel it's a responsibility of ours to make sure that those fish survive and are here for not only the Klamath tribes but for future generations.”

Mitchell isn't the only one thinking about the needs of future generations. So are farmers.

 Steve Kandra
Steve Kandra stands next to an irrigation pipe on his farm near Merrill, Oregon.

Steve Kandra “This is what they call a side-roll wheel line. It's a pressurized system….”

Steve Kandra examines an irrigation pipe on his farm near Merrill, Oregon. Kandra's the third generation in his family to farm in the Klamath Basin.

His grandfather was lured west a century ago by the promise of good soil and a reliable water supply, courtesy of a federal irrigation project. But that water supply hasn't been as reliable as Kandra needs it to be in order to grow alfafa and vegetables on his 800-acre farm.

So, as part of a separate but related agreement to the Klamath dams removal, Kandra and other farmers will get a guarantee: Either enough water for their crops, or compensation when the irrigation ditches run dry.

He says he's convinced the agreement will bring something Klamath farmers haven't had—long-term stability.

Steve Kandra: “You're not going to be out there praying for rain, even though you probably should be. But you won't be relying on it. You will know, ‘You know, we're going to be a little short.' And then you're going to have alternatives.”

Kandra might not be farming when the agreement fully kicks in ten years from now. He's nearing retirement. His kids came of age during the water wars of a decade ago and decided to take their chances elsewhere.

So Kandra will be the last of his family to farm in the Klamath basin. But Kandra says he hopes others in the area benefit from this new direction for the region.

Steve Kandra: “We're going to try to work things out together instead of trying to work things out by suing each other to death.”

 Boyle Dam
The J.C. Boyle Dam is one of four on the Klamath River that would be removed under a current agreement.

The compensation plan comes with a steep price — some $100 million — which would have to be approved by Congress. That's one of many legislative and regulatory hurdles still in place for the dam removal agreement to move ahead.

And not everyone supports the plan. Tom Mallams represents a group of farmers who live outside the Klamath basin. Mallams is concerned that his electric rates will skyrocket once the dams are gone.

Tom Mallams: “Those dams provide very cheap, cheap, cheap power. I mean, it's the cheapest power generation there possibly is.”

Mallams is waging a battle against the Klamath agreement speaking out on local radio programs and at public meetings like this one.

He says if environmental groups succeed in having the Klamath dams removed, other dams could fall like dominoes.

Tom Mallams: “The motivating forces behind this, this was their number one objective: take the dams out. I don't care what anybody says, this sets a precedent.”

PacifiCorp's Dean Brockbank denies that.

Dean Brockbank: “Let's be clear. PacifiCorp is an electric utility. We're in the business of generating power. We're not in the business of taking out dams. This is an extremely unique situation.”

The cost of removing the dams could hit $450 million. About half of that would come from PacifiCorp customers. The rest would come from California taxpayers as part of a much larger bonding issue going before voters there later this year.

That's yet another hurdle for dam removal. And, the U.S.. Department of the Interior gets a say. That decision is due in 2012.

And engineers have to figure out the logistics of what would be the largest dam removal project in American history.

The bottom line is that the earliest the dams would come out would be the year 2020.

I'm now a few miles downriver from the John Boyle Reservoir where we started this story. I'm near the base of the J.C. Boyle Dam.

Water from a diversion pipe splashes onto rocks at the river's edge. This reservoir and this dam have been part of the landscape here for years and years.

Environmentalists, tribes, and farmers alike share a new vision of what the Klamath River could look like here. The difficult work of negotiating is done.

The next phase of pleasing regulators, state and federal lawmakers promises to be just as challenging. But if all the pieces fall into place, a decade from now this dam could be history.

And once again, the Klamath River will flow free on its meandering journey to the Pacific Ocean.