Congress considers largest dam removal in U.S. history


This week, Congress is looking at a bill that even a few years ago seemed wildly, laughably improbable: an authorization to spend $250 million to implement a reworked version of the historic 2010 Klamath River agreements.

The Senate bill is a mere 42 words long, but it seeks nothing less than to seal the fate of one of the most embattled waterways in the American West. And oh yeah – it also paves the way for the largest dam removal in U.S. history, knocking out four dams, opening up 420 miles of habitat and restoring salmon runs by an estimated 80 percent. No big deal.

Though the bill itself is brief, its passage would put into motion the actions outlined in the 93-page Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, a landmark document signed this spring by farmers, tribes and politicians. Under the agreement, the Klamath Tribes, who now hold senior water rights, will save water for downstream irrigators and wildlife refuges in exchange for funds to help with economic development and restoring salmon habitat. Plus, utility company PacifiCorp will demolish its four salmon-blocking dams by 2020, paid for through a small utility surcharge and replaced by a federal utility that may include large-scale solar. With a few exceptions, nearly all stakeholders on the ground support the measures. All that’s left is for Congress to sign off.

So will it? Given that said bill is sponsored by four West Coast Democrats, the chances are slim. Nonetheless, there is a chance, and invested parties – including PacifiCorp – are determined to push legislation through one way or another. So in case you’re still scratching your head over where the heck the Klamath River is and why it’s so embattled, here's a primer:

John DeVoe
John DeVoe
Jun 09, 2014 01:31 PM
The HCN has generally been excessively sanguine about the Klamath Agreements over the years. If you are interested in this deal, you ought to consider the following analyses of the deal.[…]ements-summary-and-analysis

While this HCN post does link to a local news article reporting that the Hoopa Tribe opposes the legislation (and the Hoopa website provides a very cogent rationale for that opposition), there is other principled opposition as well - particularly from two of Oregon's leading conservation groups - WaterWatch of Oregon and Oregon Wild.

Here, from WaterWatch's website are the primary grounds of its opposition to these deals and this legislation.

I might add that there does not appear to be any realistic path for this bill through the House of Representatives, that there does not appear to be any companion bill introduced in the House, and Govtrack scores this Senate bill with a 5 percent chance of passage, see

1. The Klamath Basin restoration Agreement (KBRA)attempts to guarantee water deliveries for the Klamath Project Irrigators but contains no water guarantees or minimum stream flow levels for fish (including three fish species listed under the Endangered Species Act). The KBRA water guarantees for the Klamath Project Irrigators in wet years would deliver more water to the irrigators than they historically used in wet years, and in dry years would deliver more water to the irrigators than allowed under current Endangered Species Act protections for coho salmon;

2. The Klamath River flows which are predicted (by the deal’s proponents) to result from the KBRA would be at levels below those needed for salmon, including the river flow levels currently required under the Biological Opinion for coho salmon and the flows recommended for salmon by the best available science;

3. The Klamath Project Irrigators would receive $92.5 million under the KBRA to develop and implement their own private water plan without public oversight. A significant concern is that much of this money could be used for unsustainable groundwater development. This unsustainable groundwater development has proceeded apace in recent dry years despite studies and estimates that show it is unsustainable;

4. Commercial farming on 22,000 acres of Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges would be supported by all non-federal KBRA parties for 50 years when the practice needs to be phased out;

5. The KBRA’s attempted water allocation to Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge may never occur, is insufficient, limits the refuge from otherwise improving its water situation, and puts a heavy burden on the refuge during droughts. Under the KBRA, water deliveries to refuge wetlands would be cut before reducing water deliveries used to irrigate refuge land for commercial farming;

6. The KBRA would eliminate the best tools to secure water for Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge;

7. Klamath Project Irrigators continue to seek a very large power subsidies, plus lower cost Bonneville Power Administration power, plus special contracts that allow them to continue to drain important National Wildlife Refuge lands for commercial agriculture; and

8. The KBRA’s price tag is nearly $1 billion, yet it fails to address key problems in the basin and none of this money is for dam removal.

Key Problems With The Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA)

Though the KHSA could lead to dam removal, it is not an agreement to remove any dams, but to study whether or not any of the dams should be removed. The KHSA should be modified to address the following problems:

1. Dam removal is unnecessarily linked to the KBRA and if KBRA legislation does not pass, dam removal would be derailed;

2. There is no agreement to remove dams, only to go through a new process to determine whether dams should be removed or not;

3. No dam removal would occur before 2020, while PacifiCorp would be allowed to continue operations that degrade water quality and harm salmon, including Endangered Species Act listed coho with minimal operational changes in the interim;

4. There are a large number preconditions that provide PacifiCorp with many opportunities to abandon dam removal; and

5. There is no definite date to return to the standard Federal Energy Regulatory Commission dam relicensing process – now suspended by the KHSA – if the agreements have not become law.

The Essential Improvements for the KBRA and KHSA are:

1. Agreed-upon removal of the lower four Klamath River dams owned by PacifiCorp;

2. Assured minimum river flows or minimum quantities of water for fish based on the best available science;

3. Funding to implement a willing seller buyout program developed by Federal agencies subject to a transparent public review process to permanently reduce irrigation water demand to a level that will bring it back into balance with what is sustainable for healthy ecosystems;

4. Phasing out the commercial farming program on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges (See WaterWatch Action Alert on Comprehensive Conservation Plan Process for these refuges and WaterWatch’s backgrounder on the CCP process); and

5. Funding for needed Klamath Basin restoration work.

Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
Jun 11, 2014 05:32 PM
Now I feel guilty. I'm a stand up paddleboarder that doesn't do rivers, and I like my lakes!
Larry Darnell
Larry Darnell Subscriber
Jun 11, 2014 09:04 PM
Good article. I'd like to be around to see the dams go.
Krista Langlois
Krista Langlois Subscriber
Jun 12, 2014 02:53 PM
Hi John,

Thanks for your in-depth comments. The rebuttal you link to addresses the 2010 agreements, which were supported by most major conservation groups except Oregon Water Watch and Oregon Wild, both of which were "involuntarily expelled" from negotiations for being unwilling to compromise on certain points. From my reporting, it seems that there were indeed issues with the 2010 agreements that needed to be addressed, but that the new 2014 agreement seeks to fill some of those holes and is less expensive and more inclusive than previous agreements. You're much more directly involved in the region than I am, so I don't question your understanding of the issues, but I'd argue that what you call HCN's "excessively sanguine" attitude toward negotiations is instead the picture that multiple journalists, acting independently, have borne out through research and reporting.
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Jun 14, 2014 09:23 PM
     Thank you Ms. Langlois and Mr. DeVoe for this important information.