On the Klamath, a surprising win for river advocates

Dam removals on the Oregon-California border move forward without water deals for irrigators.


Earlier this week, the Department of the Interior announced that four dams on the Klamath River would come down. The dam removals signal a win for environmentalists, sportsmen, and tribes, but they also come without an accompanying set of water agreements, which Congress failed to enact late last year. In the end, it didn’t come down to negotiations, but simple economics: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined that the costs of retrofitting the dams along the Oregon-California border far exceeded the costs of decommissioning them.

The dams on the Lower Klamath will be removed in 2021, and although river and salmon restoration look likely, the basin’s irrigators could experience shut-offs in drought years that could re-spark the water wars that have waged in the basin for decades. The dam removals will allow 300 miles of river to flow freely, restoring salmon runs and improving water quality. In turn, the tribes and fishermen that depend on the river and the environmental groups that have long sought to improve water quality for marine birds and fish have succeeded.

“The sad thing is that a much needed dam removal has been delayed for many years because it was held hostage for political reasons by a wildly expensive and controversial water deal,” says Jim McCarthy, a spokesman for WaterWatch, a conservation group involved in the early stages of the broader pact’s negotiations. “Now finally salmon runs can be restored.”

Klamath Basin tribes and allies from the commercial fishing and conservation community stage a rally at the 2006 meeting of the International Hydropower Industry.
Patrick McCully, Flickr User

The decision vindicates groups that felt the Klamath Agreements, which were negotiated for decades, fell short. Conservation and environmental groups and many of the Basin’s tribal nations were excluded from the Klamath Agreements’ final package. Now, they’re getting exactly what they wanted: Dam removal with no strings attached.

“The irony is that environmental groups thought it was so important to make a deal with irrigators because they had political power, but 10 years later and no, we didn’t need them at all,” says Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild, an environmental group left out of the final Klamath Agreements’ three-part pact because of an impasse with irrigators over potato and onion farming within wildlife refuges.

The Klamath Agreements were designed to settle one of the West’s most unbending water conflicts. For decades, farmers, fishermen, tribes and environmental groups in 15 counties in Oregon and California battled over more than 700 river miles in the Klamath River Basin, a 12,000-square-mile swath of Northern California and southern Oregon. In 2001, the federal government shut off farmers’ water to protect endangered coho salmon and suckers. The following year, irrigators got their water, but a massive fish die-off ensued, beginning an intractable tug of war.

So, for over a decade, more than 50 stakeholders — from conservative ranching and farming irrigators to utility groups, politicians, Tribal Nations, conservation and environmental groups — all came together. And they more or less came to a compromise.

The result was the three-part Klamath River Agreements, a set of compromises that seemed to have something for nearly everyone. But Congress failed to enact the pact in 2010 and again in 2015, rendering much of that effort moot: no minimum flows for irrigators, or tribal development, or river restoration or fish or wildlife.

Conservative legislators primarily objected to the prospect of dam removal, which “presents a very tough ideological challenge for some members of Congress,” says Bob Gravely, spokesman for PacifiCorp, the utility company that owns the dams on the Klamath River.

Congressional inaction — due largely in part to avoid the precedent of a significant dam removal — restarted the FERC relicensing process, which expedited dam removal. Pedery, of Oregon Wild, says he knew dam removal would have to happen outside of federal approval. 

But the dams became an issue of economics, outside of politics. Implementing the Klamath Agreements would have required $800 million of federal funding to remove the dams and to implement the ensuing water deals made contingent on decommissioning. Retrofitting the dams would have cost more than $460 million, according to the Department of Interior. Removing them will cost an estimated $250 million. FERC decided on the latter.

“It’s bittersweet because we’ve really come full circle,” Pedery says. “The real tragedy is we squandered a decade. The dams have stayed in throughout this process and no environmental problems have been solved. Literally nothing has happened.” 

Dam removals may be cause for celebration among some groups, but without accompanying water guarantees for irrigators, like the Klamath Water Users’ Association that represents ranchers and farmers in the basin, there’s no protection for water shut-offs during drought which could lead to a reiteration of violence and legal battles akin to 2001.

“We like dams, but in this case, they serve no agricultural purpose whatsoever,” says Greg Addington, former head of the Klamath Water Users. “The sad thing for us, and the thing we worried about for years, is that dam removal could happen without a water deal going with it. What a missed opportunity.”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets

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