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!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Climate Change – a Klamath Wildcard

If you tune in to “the news” you’ve heard a constant stream of reports and read a ton of articles about climate change impacts. In the American West these reports all tell of diminished water supplies; some predict that there will be pervasive water rationing in the West by the year 2020.

Close to home, data and studies from the Sierra Nevada Mountains indicate that more precipitation will fall as rain and less as snow. As a result, more frequent and larger floods are predicted. Diminished mountain snowpack will mean less spring run-off to fill California’s reservoirs. Some officials – including California’s governor – are calling for new dams and new reservoirs to capture more run-off. These proposals – and alternatives that would not involve new dams and reservoirs - are discussed in our May 13th post (see below).

But what about the Klamath River Basin? How is Climate Change likely to impact the amount of water available for fisheries, irrigation, domestic and recreational uses in our river basin?

To date there has been no comprehensive assessment of how Climate Change is likely to impact Klamath River Basin water supplies and streamflow. Climate Change is mentioned in the proposed (and increasingly controversial) Klamath Water Deal. Along with the “drought plan”, the proposal released by the Klamath Settlement Group defers assessing the impact of Climate Change on its proposed Klamath water allocations until some unknown future time.

While there has been no comprehensive assessment, it has now come to light that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – which has taken a point position in promoting the proposed Water Deal – commissioned a climate change study in the Klamath and has had the results in its possession for at least a year. KlamBlog learned about that study from a FWS employee and tracked down its author. To make a long story shorter, a peer-reviewed article reporting the study and its results will be published this spring. Here’s the citation:

Van Kirk, R.W. and S.L. Naman. In press. Relative effects of water use and climate on base-flow trends in the lower Klamath Basin. Journal of the American Water Resources Association.

And here is that article’s abstract:

Since the 1940s, snow water equivalent (SWE) has decreased throughout the Pacific Northwest, while water use has increased. Climate has been proposed as the primary cause of base- flow decline in the Scott River, an important coho salmon rearing tributary in the Klamath Basin. We took a comparative-basin approach to estimating the relative contributions of climatic and non-climatic factors to this decline. We used permutation tests to compare discharge in 5 streams and 16 snow courses between “historic” (1942-1976) and “modern” (1977-2005) time periods, defined by cool and warm phases, respectively, of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. April 1 SWE decreased significantly at most snow courses lower than 1800 m in elevation and increased slightly at higher elevations. Correspondingly, base flow decreased significantly in the two streams with the lowest latitude-adjusted elevation and increased slightly in two higher-elevation streams. Base-flow decline in the Scott River, the only study stream heavily utilized for irrigation, was larger than that in all other streams and larger than predicted by elevation. Based on comparison with a neighboring stream draining wilderness, we estimate that 39% of the observed 10 Mm3 decline in July 1-October 22 discharge in the Scott River is explained by regional-scale climatic factors. The remainder of the decline is attributable to local factors, which include an increase in irrigation withdrawal from 48 to 103 Mm3/yr since the 1950s.

Translating into everyday English, the study found that Climate Change is already impacting Lower Klamath Basin streamflow. As in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere in the West, it is likely that Climate Change will result in more and larger floods and diminished base flow in the Lower Basin.[1]

The Van Kirk-Naman study does not cover the Upper Basin where the proposed Water Deal would lock in water allocations via federal legislation. But deferring an Upper Basin Climate Change Assessment that will likely find that the total amount of water which can be allocated to river flows and irrigation will shrink significantly should raise some eyebrows. The proposed Water Deal would also defer until some future time the “drought plan” which will tell us how the flows needed to prevent future fish kills will be obtained when there is not enough water to meet all water needs.

Critics of the proposed Water Deal believe the “drought plan” and “Climate Change Assessment” for the Upper Basin are not being produced now because they would make it clear that preventing fish kills during droughts if the proposed Deal is adopted would necessitate spending millions of taxpayer dollars to pay irrigators to leave water in the River. The proposed Water Deal would provide one group of irrigators – those who receive subsidized irrigation water from the federal Klamath Project - with a fixed water allocation guaranteed by federal legislation even during severe droughts. Taxpayer funds would be used during droughts to purchase water from these and other irrigators in order to prevent fish kills. This proposal has been criticized as both unsustainable (because of the high cost to taxpayers) and bad policy (because it would undermine the Public Trust Doctrine).

Returning to the Lower Basin, one would think that the Van Kirk-Naman Study would have led to increased focus on the Scott River where scientists estimate that 61% of the decrease in streamflow since 1977 is the result of “local factors” including a doubling of “irrigation withdrawal” since the 1950s[2]. But there is no sign that those fishing, tribal and environmental groups which claim to be the defenders of Klamath Salmon will take action to stop the dewatering of the Scott River. And while there has been a complaint to the federal government that Scott River irrigators and the California Department of Fish & Game are “taking” Coho in the Scott and altering Critical Coho Habitat, that complaint was filed by an individual – not by any of the Klamath Salmon’s self-proclaimed “defenders”.

The lack of action to help Klamath Salmon in the Scott River is even more remarkable given the fact that an independent review of Coho and other fish issues in the Klamath River Basin by one of the nation’s leading scientific organization back in 2004 pointed to the “tributaries” (and specifically to the Scott River) as the key to recovery of Coho and other salmon. Here are relevant quotes from that report:

“Coho salmon, sping-run Chinook salmon, and summer steelhead depend heavily on the tributaries to complete their life cycles and sustain their populations. Thus, restoring large, self-sustaining runs of anadromous fishes in the basin requires restoration of tributaries to conditions that favor spawning and rearing of anadromous fishes. (emphasis added)

Despite widespread decline in suitability of habitat, the Scott River retains high potential for becoming once again a major producer of anadromous fishes, especially coho salmon.

To date, however, the (stakeholder) groups (active on the Scott) have not attempted to resolve the most important but intractable issue: increasing the amount of cold water entering the tributaries and the main stem.

Why have the self-proclaimed defenders of Klamath Salmon not taken action to end the dewatering of the Scott River? And why has the Klamath Settlement Group not adopted the recommendations of a second National Research Council (NRC) Klamath Report which called for a “Basin-wide” flow study to address the very “tributaries” which the first NRC report said were “key” to the recovery of Klamath Salmon? These are questions which members of those tribes, fishing and environmental organizations which claim to be the champions of Klamath Salmon might want to ask their leaders. A list of the fishing and environmental groups active on the Klamath can be found within the May 5th and May 7th KlamBlog posts; contact information for the tribes, fishing and environmental organizations can be found on-line.

[1] The Lower Klamath Basin is that portion of the basin which is within the Klamath Mountain Province. Generally this is the portion of the Basin to the west of Interstate 5 including the Trinity and Scott Rivers. The Shasta River is on the border – part of it is in the Klamath Province and part is in the Cascade Province.

[2] The increase in irrigation in the Scott River Basin since the 1950s is estimated to be 55 Mm3/yr. This translates into an increase in irrigtion of 44,589 acre feet of water. An acre foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre of land with water a foot deep.