Court ruling could prompt decision on Klamath Dams

A Klamath River dam

After a bumpy path of setbacks and curveballs, the Klamath River dam removal project—the largest dam removal project in U.S. history— is back on track. The path to remove four hydroelectric dams has been controversial, with stakeholders pitted against one another. Those in favor of the destruction argue salmon habitat has been affected by the dammed water, while those opposed claim that removing the dams will cause property damage and loss, increased utility rates, and environmental harm.

A virtual meeting held in mid-November announced a new memorandum of agreement to destroy the dams—three in California and one in Oregon—after four months of uncertainty.

Participants of the meeting and signatories of the agreement included Charlton Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife; Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D); California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D); Yurok Tribe Chairman Joe James; Karuk Tribe Chairman Buster Attebery; Berkshire Hathaway Energy (parent company of PacifiCorp) CEO Greg Abel; and Klamath River Renewal Corporation CEO Mark Bransom.

Bonham called the meeting “historic” and the agreement the “most ambitious salmon restoration effort in history.”

The agreement details how the involved parties will implement the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which lays out the plans for the removal of four “now-obsolete” dams on the lower Klamath River, Bonham said. Work will begin in 2022, and the dams will be removed in 2023.

The agreement confirms the parties’ “firm commitment to dam removal” and that the Klamath River Renewal Corporation will be the dam removal entity in charge of that aspect of the project. It also retains the liability protections for PacifiCorp’s customers, established in the original settlement agreement. In addition, the agreement advances all the permitting and planning that remains to complete the project.

A license surrender application was filed in mid-November with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has jurisdiction over the dams. In January, the parties will submit a second application to FERC, which will remove PacifiCorp from the license, and add California, Oregon and the Klamath Renewal Corporation as co-licensees for removing the dams, Bonham said. Previously, PacifiCorp was kept on the hook for liability.

“Adding the states in this role ensures sufficient backing to get the project done; honors prior settlement terms—in which PacifiCorp would not be a co-licensee for removal; and is entirely responsive to an order we have from July of this year, confirming a lot of the project, but asking the question, ‘is there sufficient backing?’” Bonham said.

Dam removal background

Downriver tribes and fishing communities have battled for decades to remove the dams and restore a “free-flowing river” for salmon runs.

Earlier this summer, FERC had ruled PacifiCorp must remain a co-licensee to the project, because the company had experience with dam removal. PacifiCorp argued this went against the original Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement and they wouldn’t move forward with the project if they were still held liable. Adding California and Oregon as co-licensees instead was the solution to this issue.

Steps forward

Following a transfer application from the license surrender application, a full National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review will take need to take place. Much of next year will be dedicated to conducting a NEPA review. Following the review and public comment period, the project will begin in 2022.

A total of $450 million has been allocated to the project, but California, Oregon, and PacifiCorp have each pledged an additional $15 million in case the project exceeds the original allocation. Any costs after that will be split evenly between the three parties. Local politicians have questioned the spending authority of the states.

“This is another saga in the latest batch of Governor Kate Brown’s unconstitutional power grabs,” said Oregon Sen. Dennis Linthicum (R) in a released statement. “Brown continually brokers high-stakes, dark-of-night deals without public or legislative input. Oregon’s taxpayers will be on the hook for millions if this imprudent cronyism is allowed to stand.”

The Klamath Tribes celebrated the new agreement.

“Removal of the Klamath dams is a critical step in restoring salmon and steelhead back to the homelands of our people here in the Upper Klamath Basin, which have been lost to us for over 100 years,” read a released statement from the Klamath Tribes of Oregon.

“Though the Klamath Tribes were not a signatory party to the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, the Klamath Tribes have long been involved in advocating for dam removal and restoration of salmon and steelhead back to the Upper Klamath Basin, from the grass roots level, to government-to-government coordination, cooperative partnerships and legal efforts.” — Anna Miller, WLJ editor

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