Klamath water wars escalating

Dec 16, 2011

Four dams on the Klamath River, along the California and Oregon border, could be removed in the year 2020 under an agreement among federal, state and corporate parties.

The Klamath River dams have become a contentious decadelong water controversy over how the river should be managed, relating to the water supplies of farmers in the Klamath Basin and the southern Oregon region where the river begins, in addition to fish habitats.

In November, the federal government, the state of California, the state of Oregon and the PacifiCorp electric utility announced the Agreement in Principle to remove the four dams as part of an effort “to restore the river and revive its ailing salmon and steel head

runs and aid fishing, tribal and farming communities,” according to press releases.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR, and Congressman Mike Thompson, D-MT, jointly introduced the Klamath Basin Economic Restoration Act in the Senate and House last month asking Congress to approve spending $750 million to restore salmon habitat and guarantee water for Klamath Basin farm irrigation.

Local residents believe California will be footing the majority the bill as the $750 million will not cover it. The estimated cost of removing the four hydroelectric dams is expected to be $1.5 billion, according to Siskiyou County native Liz Bowen.

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency released the environmental impact statement (EIS) claiming the removal of the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon would help boost salmon runs in a river marked by poor water quality and fish disease.

The report also says 4,600 jobs would be created over the 15-year life of the program, with 1,400 of those jobs coming during the yearlong dam removal process.

“The content (of the EIS) is very positive in that it finds that the costs are lower, the jobs created would be substantial, and that’s all good news,” Merkley said in an interview.

The review lists the predicted outcomes of removing the four dams as well as the effects of the broader Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. The study examined several other alternatives, including options for leaving all dams in place as well as options for leaving two dams in place.

The U.S. Department of the Interior extended the public comment period for the Draft EIS for the Kla math Facilities Removal.

The new deadline for public comments is Dec. 30.

In October, more than 1,000 people gathered in support of farmers and ranchers against removal of the dams. “Doctors, professionals and sensible locals constantly give reasons for saving the four Klamath dams, but they are drummed out by powerful voices,” Bowen said.

Another debate stemming from the removal includes the energy source the dams produce. Sen. Tom McClintock, R-CA, who last winter lobbied successfully to reduce funding for Klamath dam studies, opposes removal on the grounds that the U.S. is facing skyrocketing energy prices and the Klamath facilities are a cheap and abundant power source.

According to state Rep. Wally Herger, R-Chico, who represents California’s 2nd Congressional District, farmers in Tulelake in Siskiyou County have been fighting regulatory battles like these for years. “In 2001, their area was ground zero for a national battle over the inflexible Endangered Species Act as farmers there had all of their irrigation water abruptly shut off in a decision that was later determined to be not justified by science,” he said.

“It is these same farmers who have been working to take the best advantage of a settlement agreement that they fervently hope will provide them the regulatory certainty they need to survive. They are hardly cheerleaders for dam removal. But they have concluded that giving up certain dams that create hydropower but do not store agricultural water is a trade-off they are willing to make in exchange for what they hope will stop the endless regulatory and court battles over their water supplies,” Herger writes.

Others claim the removal will improve drought-stricken areas.

Had the settlement agreements been in place during the 2010 Klamath drought, “we wouldn’t have had the economic disaster we did,” says Tara Jane Campbell Miranda, policy coordinator for the Klamath Water Users Association. According to the association, the Klamath agreement would have allowed local farmers 385,000-acre feet of water last year, with an obligation to deliver 45,000-acre feet to the wildlife refuges, Miranda said.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is supposed to make a final determination on dam removal in March 2012. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor