The U.S. Department of Interior has changed its tune on the proposal to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in Northern California and southern Oregon.

On May 17, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt retracted his predecessor’s support letter for the dams’ destruction.

Back in 2016, the Obama-era Interior Secretary Sally Jewell penned a letter urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve the removal of the dams, calling the process “a unique opportunity to restore this magnificent river.”

WLJ talked with Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA-01) in a phone interview Wednesday, May 22. He said he’d spoken to Secretary Bernhardt shortly before his confirmation, urging him to withdraw Jewell’s letter. LaMalfa has also spoken in person with President Donald Trump of the dams issue, he said.

Court ruling could prompt decision on Klamath Dams

A Klamath River dam

“I’m glad we got the attention of the administration and got them to pull back their tacit support for removing the dams,” LaMalfa said in a phone interview. “I had hoped it wasn’t going to be the policy of the Trump administration to remove dams. And this proves it’s not.”

Hydropower is one of the best and cleanest forms of power, LaMalfa pointed out.

In a press release Monday, May 20, LaMalfa called the retraction letter a “big victory for those fighting this misguided dam removal,” adding that Northern California needs to “support new and existing water infrastructure projects, not tear them down.”

LaMalfa noted that Siskiyou County (home to three of the dams) and Klamath County (home to the fourth) have voted overwhelmingly to retain the dams.

Chilling effect on dam removal

While the Bernhardt letter is not a “decision document,” it could have a chilling effect on the proposed dam removal, as five agencies headed by Bernhardt—like U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation—will have to perform extensive analyses before the project can advance.

If FERC decides to move forward with the proposed project, a full National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review will unfold, with the Interior agencies examining the potential economic and environmental impacts of the proposed project. Endangered Species Act (ESA) formal consultation will also be in order.

Matt Cox, spokesman for the dam-removal entity, Klamath River Restoration Corporation (KRRC), told WLJ that the letter “will not affect the process one bit,” that it was “unnecessary and not a requirement,” and that Interior remains a signatory to the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement.

But there are others who disagree. WLJ also spoke to Ray Haupt, county supervisor for Siskiyou County and former U.S. Forest Service ranger, who is familiar with the NEPA and ESA consultation processes.

“Those Interior agencies will have to weigh in, and now they may feel at liberty to reveal some of the true risks associated with this project,” Haupt said. “Jewell was putting her thumb on the scale and telling everyone [Interior] wanted the dams to come out. ... If you have all those agencies basically standing down at this point, that’s damn good.”

Like LaMalfa, Haupt has also been discussing the dam removal issue with high-level officials at Interior and the White House, Haupt said.

“I’ve told them our concerns,” he said. “I’ve told them that KRRC has no concept of the true environmental degradation that’s likely to happen, as well as the loss of property values and impact to people’s lives. KRRC’s current funds are not sufficient to pay for the disaster it’s going to unleash.”

He pointed out that KRRC plans to dissolve a few years after dam removal. That will leave questions, Haupt said, as to who will pay for things such as property damage and devaluation; the loss of wells for homes; a possible Superfund hazardous waste site; road and infrastructure repairs; and more.

He noted that destroying the reservoirs will mean the loss of water sources that have been crucial for fighting wildfires in recent years.

No benefit to fish?

“The sad part is, all this damage would be done in the name of saving fish, but it won’t help fish—it will hurt them,” Haupt said. “Then the regulators will be after the farmers and ranchers even more, for water that’s even scarcer.”

He noted that the dams maintain year-round instream flows in a river that used to run very low by the fall. Not only will salmon and other anadromous species be negatively affected below the dams, but endangered sucker fish above the dams will be imperiled as well, he said.

“These are the same suckers that farmers in the Upper Basin have been losing their livelihoods over,” he pointed out.

Destroying the dams won’t “restore” the river to its former self, either, Haupt stated.

“Releasing 20 to 30 million cubic tons of contaminated sludge from behind the dams will, according to a 2012 [Bureau of Reclamation environmental] report, likely kill all aquatic life for a five-mile stretch for a period of at least two years following dam removal,” Haupt said.

That 2012 report only addresses the first five miles below the dams, and no analysis has been done on the permanent effects likely to occur further downriver, he noted.

Reason for optimism

Haupt pointed out there have been some stumbling blocks for dam-removal enthusiasts recently. KRRC hasn’t been able to provide FERC with an acceptable “definite plan,” and the county got a favorable ruling this January that says California and Oregon can’t continue using permitting delays to stop FERC from relicensing the dams.

“And as the costs of the proposed project add up, PacifiCorp [current owner of the dams] may start to consider retrofitting the dams for fish passage a more attractive business decision than dam removal,” Haupt said. “So, we’re optimistic.” — Theodora Johnson, WLJ correspondent

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