Thursday, September 13, 2012

After Condit Dam...and on the Klamath?

PacifiCorp's Condit Dam on Washington State's White Salmon River was breached on October 26, 2011. Removal of the dam was completed in August 2012. Here's what that stretch of the River looks like today:

Site of the former Condit Dam

Boaters are already navigating this stretch of the White Salmon River and restoration activities are underway. 

PacifiCorp's Condit Hydroelectric Project was removed by order of FERC - the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. PacifiCorp negotiated the removal order after fish ladders and other relicensing requirments rendered the aging hydroelectric project an annual money loser. 

This is exactly parallel to the situation on the Klamath. PacifiCorp's aging Klamath Hydroelectric Project could be relicensed. But relicensing requirements - including fish ladders and a change in "ramping rates" (turning the river on and off in order to generate electricity) - would render the Project an annual money loser.

The difference on the Klamath is that federal, state and tribal officials and PacifiCorp have conspired to allow PacifiCorp to walk away from the dams and powerhouses it owns in exchange for attaching a costly and controversial water deal - the KBRA - to the dam removal deal negotiated outside FERC. That's a sweetheart deal for the "one percent" if there ever was one!

One of the most controversial aspects of the KBRA Water Deal is that it seeks to "cap" the amount of water that is allowed to flow down the Klamath River. That would not be a problem if the capped amount was sufficient to support recovery of at-risk Coho and Chinook salmon. But that is not the case. KBRA Klamath River flows are calculated to prevent extinction but not sufficient for recovery. 

Of course KBRA promoters point to the "environmental water" which the KBRA seeks to "create" through voluntary sale and retirement of private water rights or through one of more new dams and reservoirs. It is this "new" water, they say, which will lead to salmon recovery. However, while promoters speak about this water as if it already existed, the track record nationally when water deals call for the creation of "environmental water" has not been good. As in other poorly negotiated environmental deals, we know of no instance where promised "environmental water"  has actually materialized as real (wet) water in a stream.  

In fact, the KBRA ignores the major recommendation of the second panel of independent scientists which the federal government asked to make recommendations for restoring Klamath salmon. Those scientists recommended in the strongest terms that a basin-wide flow assessment be conducted in order to determine flows needed in all Klamath River Basins rivers which are subject to large agricultural water withdrawal and consumption. The KBRA fails to even mention that recommendation; nor will you hear it mentioned by the feds who are so deep into Klamath deal-making that they have abandoned the path which independent scientists recommend.   

If dam removal had been negotiated within the FERC process, PacifiCorp shareholders would have to bear some of the cost of removing the facilities they own and no side deals like the KBRA would be allowed. Under the KHSA Dam Deal taxpayers would pick up PacifiCorp shareholders' portion of dam removal costs.

Why PacifiCorp loves the stalemate

The current situation - stalemate over legislation to authorize and fund the KHSA Dam Deal and the KBRA Water Deal - is the best of all possible worlds for PacifiCorp. Until federal legislation is passed - or until a lawsuit or other action ends the stalemate - PacifiCorp gets to operate the obsolete Klamath Hydroelectric Project without making changes which would be required if the dams were relicensed. 

The environmental cost of PacifiCorp's sweetheart deal became painfully evident on September 1st when the Klamath River suddenly turned from pretty darn clear to sickly green just as a large run of Chinook salmon began ascending the River and as traditional Yurok folks prepared for a boat dance at Weitchpec. 

 Toxic Algae turns clear water a murky green 
(photo courtesy of Klamath Riverkeeper)

Part of a larger multi-day world renewal ceremony, the boat dance and ceremony aim at fixing what is wrong in the world. A River choking in toxic algae - a River in which medicine makers are supposed to bathe as part of the ceremonies to fix what is wrong in the world - is a situation badly in need of fixing.

How many years of toxic algae are ahead?

With a Congressional stalemate over KHSA-KBRA authorizing legislation likely to continue post-election - and with the promise of lawsuits from Siskiyou County and others should the KHSA-KBRA legislation ever become law - the Yurok boat dancers and all those who live along or visit the Klamath River could be looking at - and boating through - a river choked in toxic algae for many years to come. 

Still, it could have been worse this year. As part of the payoff for getting the KHSA sweetheart deal, PacifiCorp is spending money on "interim measures" of its own choosing in order to "mitigate" the impact of its salmon-killing dams remaining in our River. 

A big chunk of that money goes to tribes and other organization which support the KHSA and KBRA.  But PacifiCorp also wants to use toxic algaecides experimentally in its reservoirs to kill the blue green algae. Fortunately, the North Coast Water Quality Board refused to give PacifiCorp a permit to dump algaecides into Klamath Waters. There is also an on-line petition asking PacifiCorp's president not to use algaecides in the reservoirs.

Thank goodness the folks at the North Coast Water Board have some sense!  What we definitely don't need is yet another toxic substance in our River!   

Will the PUC's break the stalemate?

Few of those involved in Klamath issues realize the role state Public Utility Commissions may still play in the fate of PacifiCorp's dams. While the California and Oregon PUCs approved a rate increase in accordance with the KHSA Dam Deal,  additional PacifiCorp rate increase requests have followed in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California where PacifiCorp provides power to business and residential customers . 

Utility watchers are now reporting that the Oregon and Idaho PUC's are becoming concerned about the rapidly escalating cost of electricity generated by PacifiCorp. The company's owner - Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway - is pouring capital into PacifiCorp with expectation that the PUC's will grant cost recovery plus the 9% profit on investment usually granted to utilities. But recent reports say the PUCs are not happy with how rapidly the cost of electricity provided by PacifiCorp is escalating.

If California fails to come up with the bond money it promised it would provide in the KHSA Dam Deal, PacifiCorp could be back at the Oregon and California PUCs looking for more money from ratepayers for dam removal under the KHSA. But with the PUC's reported nervousness about the escalating cost of  PacifiCorp generated electricity, the PUC's could insist that the actual owners of the dams - Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway investment company -  who have taken years of profit on electricity generated at the Kamath dams  - also contribute to their removal. 

That would be a long shot. But if the Hoopa Tribe and PacifiCorp customers weigh in on a future PacifiCorp rate increase request to the PUC, that long-shot may actually have a chance to succeed.

Stay tuned.   


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