Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dam removal deal may be close!

There is a buzz among the cognoscenti (i.e. those in the know) that a deal is near between PacifiCorp and the tribes, environmental and fishing organizations which have sought removal of four of the five Klamath River dams owned by the Portland-based power company. Some predict announcement of a deal will occur before the end of June.

A dam removal deal will come as no surprise to those who understand the hurdles PacifiCorp faces in trying to obtain a new license to operate the Klamath Hydroelectric Project. In order to be licensed, the Project, including its dams and reservoirs, must be certified as meeting both California and Oregon water quality standards. Short of constructing the equivalent of sewage treatment plants at each dam site, the Project can not meet the applicable water quality standards.

Last week those standards themselves took a step toward getting tougher when a judge ruled that the Northcoast Water Board must reconsider whether it has authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate toxic algae produced in PacifiCorp’s Klamath River reservoirs and released downstream by dam operators. According to the Associated Press, The Northcoast Board’s Catherine “Kuhlman said if the state of California agreed to demand that PacifiCorp get a permit to allow toxic algae to flow out of the reservoirs, it could ultimately lead to a finding the dams have to come out, for lack of any other effective way of dealing with the pollution.” In that case, PacifiCorp would be on the hook for the entire cost of removing the dams, other facilities and the sediment behind the dams. Thus the new court decision provides PacifiCorp with added motivation to agree to a dam removal deal that passes the removal cost to taxpayers.

While the proposed Klamath Water Deal has engendered controversy ever since its release – splitting tribes and the fishing-environmental Klamath Basin Coalition - dam removal apparently has universal support among environmentalists, fishing organizations and Klamath River Basin tribes. But that could change depending on what is in the dam removal deal. Here’s why:

Negotiations with PacifiCorp are being conducted by the same individuals who brought us the Klamath Water Deal. Those negotiators gave the Irrigation Elite (that group of irrigators who receive subsidized water from the federal Klamath Project) all they asked for including:

  • First call on a generous allocation of Klamath River water.
  • A whopping electric power subsidy.
  • A Headwaters-style “agreement” with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish & Game to develop “take permits” allowing this one group of irrigators to “take” a whole list of federal and state threatened, endangered or protected species including Bald Eagles and Bull Trout.
  • Legislative affirmation that commercial farming will continue on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges.

Some parties fear that PacifiCorp – like the Irrigation Elite – will also get a sweetheart deal from these negotiators. Of particular concern is PacifiCorp’s desire to be released from any liability associated with removal of the four dams. If – as has been claimed – there are toxic dioxins in the dam sediment this could be a very big deal and very costly for taxpayers. PacifiCorp should not be liable for dam removal impacts they do not control; but they should not be released from liability for any toxic legacies associated with their dams and powerplants.

There is also the issue of the fifth PacifiCorp dam. Keno Dam is at the lower end of the Upper Basin just before the Klamath River enters the Cascade Canyon. The reservoir behind Keno – known as Lake Ewana – is likely the most badly polluted of PacifiCorp’s Klamath River reservoirs. But the Irrigation Elite want that dam to remain in place. So – since that group tends to get everything they want and because PacifiCorp doesn’t want Keno Dam which produces no power - it is likely that a deal with PacifiCorp will include transfer of Keno Dam to the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

But what about Lake Ewana - the polluted reservoir behind Keno? Will a dam removal deal allow PacifiCorp to walk away from that pollution problem? Lake Ewana experiences regular fish kills – including endangered sucker species – connected to highly polluted irrigation drainage water, storage of logs in the river, destruction of wetlands along this stretch of river and the impoundment of water behind the dam. Some biologists fear that Lake Ewana may prove to be a formidable barrier to salmon migration because of its deadly water quality. Others observe that Redband trout migrate through the reservoir so - they reason - salmon and steelhead should be able to do it as well.

A wild card in a dam removal agreement could be the proposed Klamath Water Deal itself. If PacifiCorp agrees to back that Deal as part of a dam removal agreement, look for some environmental and fishing organizations to oppose the linkage and call for a "clean" dam removal agreement.

As we saw with release of the proposed Klamath Water Deal, expect to see a ton of positive spin when a Klamath Dam Removal Agreement is announced. But – as with the earlier deal – the devil will be in the details. Let’s hope those details don’t get overlooked while all the spinning is taking place. Prior experience would caution environmental and fisheries advocates to read the fine print before issuing endorsements.

Clearly those irrigators and tribes which would benefit from the proposed Water Deal are hoping that a dam removal agreement with PacifiCorp will be so popular that it will carry the Water Deal – and its high price tag - as part of a single piece of federal legislation. Others – including KlamBlog – fear that the controversial and expensive proposed Water Deal will make dam removal – which also has a high price tag – more difficult to “sell” to Congress. And then there is the New Administration which will take over the Interior Department on January 20th 2009. What position will the new Administration take? That could be the number one Klamath Wildcard!


Question of the week – A new KlamBlog feature!

For the first week of this new feature there will be a bonus question too!

Q: Who were the original members of the Klamath Basin Coalition and what were the key proposals in the Coalition’s original vision for the Klamath Basin?

Bonus Q: There are about 200,000 irrigated acres in the federal Klamath Project. How much power does it take on an annual basis to irrigate those 200,000 acres?

Post your answers here or send them in an e-mail to
The correct answer will be posted next week.

No prizes; just the glory!

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