Court ruling could prompt decision on Klamath Dams

A Klamath River dam

Reality may be starting to set in for the proponents of tearing out the Klamath dams: Not only is it a bad idea; it’s a far cry from a done deal.

Removal of the four Klamath hydroelectric dams in Northern California and southern Oregon would constitute the largest dam removal project in United States history. But recent comments from PacifiCorp, owner of the dams, reveal that the truth about the perils of dam removal is starting to surface.

“Dam removal on the Klamath River is a natural-resource-management decision that PacifiCorp, as a regulated utility, is unwilling to undertake because of the substantial risks and uncertain benefits,” said PacifiCorp in comments to the California State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) on Feb. 26.

This declaration is particularly striking given that PacifiCorp is perhaps the most important signatory to the agreement to tear out the dams—the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, or KHSA. Per that agreement, the dams are supposed to be destroyed—after being transferred from PacifiCorp to the KHSA-created nonprofit, Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC). The decision to transfer the dams is up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

One county and its legal team has been working tirelessly to provide decision makers like PacifiCorp and FERC with the scientific and legal facts about the dangers of dam removal. That would be Siskiyou County, home to three of the four dams being considered for removal.

The county’s latest action in the years-long fight came in February, when it submitted comments to the Water Board and FERC. The County’s 85 pages of comments detailed the potentially devastating impacts of dam removal on the overall health of the Klamath River ecosystem, as well as impacts on people, such as jeopardized cultural resources; exposure to hazardous materials; uncontrolled flooding; traffic impacts; and other damages to the local community.

Siskiyou County’s investment seems to be paying off. Not only is PacifiCorp now humming a tune much similar to the county’s, but FERC has been asking serious questions of KRRC before it accepts the nonprofit’s plan. To date, KRRC hasn’t provided FERC with satisfactory answers.

One major concern is whether KRRC will be able to afford the cost of dam removal, or that it will truly shoulder the significant liabilities facing PacifiCorp and its customers if the dams come out. Not only do the dams provide flood control, they also hold at least 20 million cubic yards of polluted settlement behind them.

The inadequacy of KRRC’s plan is evidenced in a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) released last December by California’s Water Board. Although the draft EIR was produced under the pretense of providing clarity on the potential impacts of dam removal, the document has major holes, coming across more as a rubber-stamping exercise than an effort to truly analyze the potential impacts of dam removal.

The Water Board’s apparent lack of objectivity should come as no surprise: California (as well as Oregon) is a signatory to the KHSA. Can a signatory to KHSA—an agreement to tear out the dams—be expected to produce an objective EIR on the subject?

“Critically,” PacifiCorp wrote of the draft EIR, “it relies on outdated data, inaccurately evaluates the impacts of sediment discharges, and minimizes impacts to listed species while also overstating adverse impacts related to continued operation of the Klamath Hydroelectric Project.”

One example of California’s “minimizing” of potential dam removal impacts involves the endangered Lost River and shortnose sucker fish. Last year, the California State Legislature passed a bill allowing KRRC to kill untold numbers of these two species when (or if) it removes the dams. Meanwhile, farmers in the Klamath Basin have taken major hits to their irrigation water, all in the name of preserving those same sucker fish.

The draft EIR seems to give KRRC many more passes, attempting to exempt the nonprofit from air quality standards, greenhouse gas emission standards, local regulations, and more. Notably absent from the Water Board’s analysis, too, is any consideration of the effect of dam removal on local communities, including ranching and farming.

But what may be most shocking about this draft EIR is that it will most likely have to be re-drafted almost entirely once KRRC gives FERC an acceptable plan—or rather, if KRRC is able to do so. The whole EIR process would then have to start again. The current draft EIR thus appears to have been no more than a very expensive PR stunt, designed to make it look like the KHSA is moving forward.

But even if KRRC and the KHSA get more free passes from the Water Board in the next EIR—if in fact the process gets that far—that doesn’t put this project on the home stretch. Other state agencies, federal agencies (including the major decision maker, FERC), local governments, and very likely Congress and the courts still stand between the dam-removal activists and their goal.

Meanwhile, Siskiyou County will keep up the fight to bring the truth to light. Thank you to all of you who are helping in that effort. — Siskiyou County Natural Resources Department

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