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Know the West

The long and winding road...


If you're familiar with the Klamath River Basin, which straddles the Oregon-California border, you've likely heard the story. Leafing back through the High Country News archives, we've certainly told it enough times. It goes something like this:

The largely agricultural basin received just one third of its average annual precipitation in 2001. So the federal government shut off irrigators' water to protect coho salmon, which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The farmers -- who apparently lost between $27 and $47 million as a result -- revolted, held sit-ins, and opened the headgates repeatedly themselves. "The whole affair," contributing editor Matt Jenkins wrote in his 2008 HCN cover story, "Peace on the Klamath," "took on the feel of a tent revival -- or, in its own weird way, a civil-rights march. 'The day (the feds) came, the people there linked arms around the headgate and started singin' hymns,' (Bill) Ransom (-- who helped organize the protests--) says. 'It kind of dumbfounded them, I think.' " Eventually, the Bush Administration got the farmers their water back ... and tens of thousands of salmon died. 

It was, in a word, a meltdown. But the disaster also helped catalyze the "peace" that Jenkins wrote about: a landmark collaboration between dozens of stakeholders, from three tribes to irrigators to environmentalists to commercial fishermen, to put a stop to (or at least muzzle) what has arguably been one of the West's ugliest water wars. And last week saw a major development in that effort: The Department of Interior released a slew of studies evaluating the environmental impacts of two agreements that arose from those negotiations: one to remove the utility Pacificorps' four lower hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River after 2020, and the other, a comprehensive restoration program wherein fish get more water and farmers accept less along with more certainty that the water they do get won't be shut off.


The combined benefits listed in the reports are impressive (pdf):

  • Chinook salmon's annual median productivity is expected to increase more than 80 percent, with the ocean fishery increasing 46.5 percent and the tribal harvest increasing by 54.8 percent.
  • A whole bunch of upper basin habitat will become available to various fish, including 420 miles accessible to Steelhead, 68 miles to Cohos.
  • Dam removal should help alleviate conditions that lead to fish disease and toxic algae blooms, though nutrient-loading from agriculture will still be a problem.
  • Dam removal is expected to generate 1,400 full-time, part-time, and temporary jobs (pdf), with the 15-year restoration agreement creating an estimated 4,600.
  • The dam removal is expected to cost $290 million (paid for by Pacificorps ratepayers and the states of Oregon and California) -- much less than the expected $450 million projected in one of the agreements. (And as a sidenote, removing them is apparently less expensive than retrofitting them with fish-ladders and other infrastructure required per the terms of their relicensing if they are to stay in operation. If they are removed, enough replacement power to serve 70,000 homes must be developed.)

In the Oregonian, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., praised  stakeholders in the agreements that would bring these improvements: "They collectively decided there must be a better way. When they first briefed me on their conversation I thought it will be a near miracle if all these groups that traditionally deeply disliked each other can sit in a room and figure out a plan. And they did." 

Though much of the coverage of the studies so far has been boosterish, there's plenty of opposition and caveats too. Siskiyou County, Cali., has been vocal -- in no small part because most of the plans' immediate negative impacts will fall on it and Klamath County, Ore.: loss of about 50 hydroelectric jobs and the recreation industries associated with the reservoirs as well as an indeterminate loss in property values (and property taxes) from waterfront parcels that will be left high and dry. And California Rep. Tom McClintock, R., has been on a (electrically illiterate) tirade of sorts, proclaiming on the House floor that it's insanity "to destroy four perfectly good hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River capable of producing 155,000 megawatts (ummm ... do you mean megawatt-hours, Rep. McClintock? 'Cause otherwise that's equivalent to the total power generating capacity of about half of the U.S.'s 1,436 coal plants) of the cleanest and cheapest electricity on the planet – enough for 155,000 homes (actually, it's more like 70,000 right now)." And as for the administration's job claims? Says a sarcastic McClintock: "Just imagine how many jobs we could create if we tore down the Hoover Dam. Or Duluth, Minnesota."    

Others, meanwhile -- most notably the three Klamath River tribes who didn't sign the agreements -- refuse endorsement because they feel too much was traded away during the negotiation process (namely, the right to make a call on their senior water rights -- an action that could leave farmers high and dry). “The agreements prioritize the water rights of non-Indian irrigation districts and utility customers over first-in-time Indian water and fishing rights,” Hoopa tribal attorney Tom Schlosser wrote in the Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy. “We definitely have been attentive to and supportive of reintroduction of fish to the upper basin and improvements to water quality that would come from dam removal,” Mike Orcutt, director of the Hoopa Tribe’s fisheries department, told Indian Country Today:

But Orcutt says the tribe is concerned that post-dam restoration projects outlined in the Klamath proposals won’t be adequately funded, especially since those funds would require Congressional approval in a tough economic climate. ... Furthermore, the Hoopa are concerned that the Klamath proposals don’t go far enough to safeguard the Trinity, a tributary of the Klamath where the Hoopa worked tirelessly to secure federal environmental protections. Schlosser says the dam-removal proposal allows farmers to divert too much water, increasing the risk for fish kills that would impact both the Klamath and the Trinity rivers.

An independent panel of scientists that reviewed the agreements earlier this year was also positive about removing the dams but skeptical in its assessment of the outcomes of restoration programs, according to the Los Angeles Times:

(To really achieve gains in the salmon population), the panel cautions, the project must tackle vexing problems, including poor water quality and fish disease. The report concluded that the agreement doesn't adequately address those issues. Under the proposal, vegetation in restored wetlands and stream banks would be expected to absorb the phosphorus from natural and agricultural sources that promotes harmful algal blooms. But such a method ... would require converting an area roughly equivalent to 40% of the irrigated farmland in the Upper Klamath Lake watershed to wetlands. "This does not seem like a feasible level of effort," the report notes.

Indeed, the L.A. Times' Bettina Boxall notes in her latest article on the subject,

The draft environmental impact statement acknowledges that even when the dams are gone, fall-run chinook would have to be trapped and trucked around a stretch of the river that would continue to suffer from warm temperatures and low oxygen levels during part of the year.

Still, it's remarkable that the stakeholders and the feds have gotten this far, especially when you consider how difficult it's been to get the federal government to even float as a last-ditch measure the possibility of removing four salmon-blocking hydroelectric dams on the Snake River in Washington.

Once all the public comments are in and a final environmental study is issued, Interior Sec. Ken Salazar has until next March to decide whether to give the agreements the green light. Meanwhile, Congress will need to authorize hundreds of millions of dollars for the restoration programs. Given McClintock's opposition and the overall anti-regulatory, anti-environment climate in the House, it looks like it will be quite a fight -- if it gets far enough to become one anytime soon. But now that the ball is really rolling, perhaps it doesn't matter. Dams on Washington's Elwha River are coming down as we speak. That took, what? Twenty years from the time Congress passed authorizing legislation?

Sarah Gilman is HCN's associate editor. 

Photo of the Klamath River taken from Keno, Oreg., courtesy of Flickr User Michael McCullough