Ten years ago, a group of farmers, ranchers, anglers, environmental activists, tribal members, power companies and politicians in Southern Oregon and Northern California started meeting. They were trying to come up with a grand bargain for the Klamath Basin — a deal to prevent the kinds of water wars that rocked the region in 2001 and 2002.
The group eventually came up with the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. At its heart was the idea that fish, farms and cows could share the water and that some long-standing dams would be removed. There was one big catch: it required congressional approval, which never happened.
But some parts of the agreement — specifically dam removal — seem likely to go forward anyway. Several weeks ago, PacifiCorp, which owns the Klamath River dams, filed an application with the federal government to transfer ownership of the dams to a new entity called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation.
Michael Carrier, the president of the board of directors of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, describes the purpose of the nonprofit this way: "to receive the dams from PacificCorp and then to decommission and remove those dams."
The Klamath River, which flows from central Oregon to the Pacific Ocean on the Northern California coast, had historically been the third largest Salmon-producing river in the Pacific Northwest. The four dams in question are quite old and do not allow for the passage of fish headed either upstream or downstream. By PacifiCorp's estimate, the dams provided less than 1 percent of the company's power portfolio as of 2010.
The U.S. Department of Interior estimates that it would cost over $290 million to decommission the dams and restore the river valley habitat. Much of that money has already been raised by a surcharge on PacifiCorp customers' power bills. In addition, California has appropriated $250 million in a general appropriation. That money is currently in the care of a trustee waiting to transfer to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which currently plans to begin dam deconstruction in 2020.
Carrier says there are a number of regulatory steps between now and final decommissioning for interested parties to weigh in on the process, but he rejects the notion that the removal of these specific dams will lead to the eventual removal of most hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest.
Many hydroelectric dams operate with appropriate facilities affording fish passage and mitigating for any water quality effects. But there are a number of very old, early 20th century, hydroelectric facilities that were not equipped to address those environmental issues, and I think it's a smart business decision for owners of those dams to evaluate: is it cost effective to try to retrofit those, or to replace that power elsewhere and remove those facilities?”
Though dam removal is the only part of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement that is currently on track to move forward, Carrier says he still has hope that ranchers, tribes and other parties throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California will come together to continue conversations about irrigation, flooding and other issues that remain contentious.
"You still have parties that are willing to work together to either achieve that agreement, or some subsequent version of an agreement like that, and their commitment to ... convince a future congress that this really is in the best interests of the basin," says Carrier.
If the four Klamath River dams are taken down, it would be the largest dam removal and ecological restoration project in U.S. history.