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Could Klamath Dam Removal Deal Set Future Precedent?

Tuesday Oregon’s second-largest utility company will announce it has agreed to tear down four of its dams on the Klamath River, near the California border.

The deal was agreed to by Governor Kulongoski and the Obama Administration — and would be the largest dam destruction project in U.S. history.

Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey has been reporting on the Klamath Basin controversy – and joins me this morning to talk about this announcement.

Good Morning, Ethan.

Good Morning, Geoff.

Geoff Norcross: So, Ethan, haven’t we been hearing about this settlement for a while now? Anything different this time around?

Ethan Lindsey: This time the dam’s owner has signed on to the deal.

In 2008, more than two-dozen interest groups signed what is known as the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.

That plan was a big deal because it seemed to point a way towards resolving one of the worst water fights in the country – between farmers, tribes, anglers, and environmentalists along the Oregon-California border.

The deal was predicated on the removal of four dams on the Klamath River.

PacifiCorp owns the dams – and hadn’t agreed to the settlement.

Well, today, PacifiCorp announced it will sign on to the dam removal agreement.

Dean Brockbank is the vice president and general counsel for the company, which owns Oregon’s Pacific Power and other utilities in the west.

Brockbank says Pacificorp originally asked for approval to keep the dams operating for decades.

Dean Brockbank: “At the settlement table, it became obvious, from parties, primarily the federal government, Gov. Schwarzenegger, and Gov. Kulongoski, that these governmental entities were interested not in seeing a relicensed project – but seeing these dams removed.”

Geoff Norcross: Seems like a no-brainer, I guess. But is this the final deal? What stage in the process are we at?

Ethan Lindsey: You’re right to be skeptical. In fact, this is just a draft agreement. All the different groups have to go back to their constituents and get them to sign off on the deal.

Negotiators say they expect all the groups to agree by December. But even then the dams aren’t scheduled to be toppled until 2020.

Mike Carrier is the natural resources advisor for Governor Kulongoski.

Mike Carrier: “Certainly getting the company to agree to the settlement is absolutely essential, it couldn’t happen without the company. But there are other really essential steps that need to be taken.

California must vote to fund its share of the dam removal. And while most say it’s not a big hill to climb, any spending is controversial as California deals with its budget crisis.

Oregon’s legislature already approved collecting $180 million from its ratepayers to pay their share.

The deal also calls for Congress to protect PacifiCorp from any liability that stems from dam removal.

Geoff Norcross: Okay, it’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings. I get it. But this still sounds like incredible news: the biggest dam breach in U.S. history.

Ethan Lindsey: Dam removal is a very controversial national issue right now.

Environmentalists say salmon and natural habitats would be saved by tearing down dams across the west, including some major hydroelectric dams on the Snake River.

I asked PacifiCorp’s Brockbank whether he sees this as the first of many dam removal projects in the west.

Dean Brockbank: “We’re a utility and we’re in the business of generating power and we’re in the business of relicensing our hydroelectric projects. Klamath is different, Klamath is unique. Don’t think we’ve got a slippery slope problem here.”

Even one of the most vocal opponents of the Klamath Basin deal, Oregon Wild, says dam removal would be a good thing.

Ani Kame'enui  is the Klamath coordinator for the Portland-based environmental group.

Ani Kame'enui: “We certainly are in an era of dam removals, instead of dam construction which is definitely a step in the right direction. But unfortunately, when you link it to a larger deal that makes other sacrifices, you’re actually taking a step back because dam removal can’t be the only method of progress of restoration in a 10-(m)million-acre basin.”

And this deal isn’t being signed in a vacuum.

The Savage Rapids Dam is coming out of the Rogue River in just a few weeks.

And while the Klamath would be the largest dam removal project, the Elwha Dam in Washington state is technically taller than any of the Klamath dams – and is scheduled to be blown up in 2011.

Okay. Thanks for the update Ethan.

You’re welcome, Geoff.