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Know the West

Fate of four Klamath River dams under negotiation


PacifiCorp - the Buffett-Berkshire Hathaway company which owns and operates the Klamath Hydroelectric Project - is in confidential negotiations with the federal Department of Interior and the States of California and Oregon concerning the fate of the Project and its five dams. Word has come from inside the talks that an "agreement in principle" to remove four of the five dams will come by the end of September.

PacifiCorp recently indicated a willingness to abandon its quest for a new hydropower license when it withdrew its application to the California Water Quality Control Board seeking the required certification of the Project as complying with water quality standards. Water quality specialists believe the Klamath Hydroelectric Project can not be legally certified as compliant with the standards because it makes the poor quality water it receives much worse. While the press has focused on toxic algae produced in the reservoirs, it is the standards for temperature and nutrients which the dams’ discharges can not meet. Water quality standards for toxic algae have not been established by the State of California.

An aspect of Klamath politics which the media has not covered is how tribes, fishing groups and environmental organizations came to be excluded from negotiations which will decide the dams’ fate. The exclusion – reportedly insisted upon by PacifiCorp – was made possible by the strategy championed by the California Hydropower Reform Coalition and adopted by tribes, fishing and local environmental groups.

 The California Hydropower Reform Coalition strategy called for negotiations with PacifiCorp early in the relicensing process. But if the dam removal coalition had waited for and challenged in court government decisions approving PacifiCorp’s license application, PacifiCorp, the feds and states would not have been able to exclude them from the negotiations concerning their fate. California Hydropower Reform Coalition groups leading the Klamath dam removal effort are American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and Friends of the River.

Independent hydropower experts suspect that PacifiCorp intended to abandon the Klamath Hydroelectric Project all along. The company’s Klamath dams and powerhouses are old and obsolete. Profitability is marginal now and will decrease if the dams are relicensed because of new flow requirements for fish. But if the company abandoned the license on its own initiative PacifiCorp would be solely responsible for removing the dams and powerhouses it owns and for all related liability. Instead it is believed that the deal now being negotiated with the feds and states will provide the company – and investor Warren Buffett – with a low or no cost way out of the Klamath Project. Look for the federal government to take over removing the dams and for the company to be relieved from liability associated not only with dam removal but also with those old powerhouses and any related toxic legacies.

Meanwhile the fate of a Klamath River Water Deal negotiated by many of the same players remains in limbo. If a dam removal deal is reached we can expect promoters of the Water Deal to renew efforts to tie that controversial deal to dam removal. The vehicle would be federal legislation. Legislation will be needed to provide the funds necessary to remove the dams. But the proposed Water Deal would require coming up with an additional $1 billion. Tying that deal to dam removal is likely to make passage of legislation to remove the dams more difficult. Furthermore, with key groups in his district opposing the Water Deal, Congressman Mike Thompson may not be willing to carry legislation which includes both costly dam decommissioning and the controversial Water Deal.

The complex and convoluted Klamath politics described above defies the simplistic interpretations which have been promoted by some of the players and parroted in many of the media reports which have appeared on the topic. Like all western water politics, Klamath water politics is often more than it would seem on the surface and much more than what is reported in the media.

There are yet more twists to the story than I have provided above. But those will have to wait for another day and another post.