It’s not every day that the governors of both Oregon and California, the U.S. Interior secretary and the head of a major power company -- as well as representatives of multiple tribes all gather at the mouth of a river. But then, Wednesday was an historic day for the Klamath River.
Two agreements signed near the river's mouth in Northern California mean four privately-owned dams are now on track to be removed from the Klamath. It’s described as the largest river restoration project in the country.
Let's break it down.
What's in the two new agreements?
The first agreement — the one that’s getting the most attention — is all about removing four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River – three in California and one in Southern Oregon. Specifically, it sets up financial safeguards for the dams' owner, the utility PacifiCorp, making it cost effective to remove the dams. And that will open up 300 miles of historic habitat for salmon in the Klamath — a major step for the imperiled species' recovery.
The second agreement is essentially for the farmers. It shields them from costs associated with restoring salmon runs once the dams come out – things like installing fish screening. It also commits all of the groups that sign on to the agreement to support congressional efforts to secure lower-cost power for the farmers – pumping water for irrigation is extremely electricity-dependent and the irrigators want help paying to do it.
Why are water and fish in the Klamath Basin so important?
Well, basically, there’s not enough water in the Klamath to go around. There is a lot of agriculture in the basin, some of it has been around for more than a century. And in low water years – like the drought we’ve been in lately – when farmers take the water they’re allotted, there’s not enough left over for fish.
The Klamath has historically been a major salmon river on the West Coast. And the conflict really came to a head back in 2002 when there was a massive salmon die-off from disease caused by a lack of water in the river. As you may imagine, tribes along the Klamath who depend on the salmon for food -- and for cultural and religious reasons -- were devastated. So were commercial fishermen.
What got us to this point?
The game changer came a few years back when a court decided the Klamath Tribes in Oregon had senior water rights – older than even the oldest right a farmer could claim to the water.
That might sound wonky. But it means suddenly the tribes had the power to cut off other water to farmers so they could make sure there was enough for the fish – and suddenly all the players in the basin had a reason to come to the negotiating table.
They negotiated the Klamath Agreements. But those fell apart at the end of last year, because Congress didn't authorize them.
When it comes to the dams, are they definitely coming down?
To be clear, This deal doesn’t equal dam removal. It’s federal energy regulators that have the authority to allow the dams to be removed. And that’s a process that will likely take several years.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she thinks it will be difficult for energy regulators to say no to removing these dams with so many key groups signed on an agreement calling for them to come down. But it's very likely they will also be hearing quite a bit from people who are opposed to dam removal — so that will all have to be weighed.
So are there any issues that remain outstanding in the Basin, now that these new agreements are in place?
The money for the deal that spares farmers from paying for fish recovery -- that will still have to go through Congress. And there are still some big land and water issues that still have to be worked out.
The farmers want to negotiate a water-sharing arrangement with the Klamath Tribes in Oregon.
In addition, the Klamath Tribes want the federal government to come through with one of the elements of the initial deal: the transfer to the tribes of ownership of land they can then use for economic development. The parcel the Klamaths had identified was sold while everyone was waiting for Congress to act on the original deals. Now a new piece of land has to be found, the money and the terms to buy it secured.
Is everyone excited about these latest developments?
No, not everyone is. There are people and groups out there who did not support the original Klamath Agreements. And generally they are finding fault with this round as well.
The Hoopa Tribe is the only tribe along the Klamath that didn’t support the original agreements. In part, they didn’t think the environmental restoration piece was strong enough. The Tribe hasn’t signed onto these agreements either. The Interior Department says they are still trying to bring the Hoopa on board.
Some environmental groups, like WaterWatch of Oregon have similar complaints. They support dam removal.
“But we do not support tying the dam removal to unrelated side agreements that take the Klamath Basin the wrong way on water conservation,” Communications Director Jim McCarthy says.
He says the new deal backing power subsidies for farmers continues to encourage Klamath water use above and beyond what the system can actually handle.
For their part, the irrigators are nervous that so much of what they want out of a Klamath River water deal still hasn’t been negotiated. And while dam removal is looking increasingly probable, water certainty in the Basin is far from settled.