Hope fades for Klamath River accords

Could the breakdown of the landmark water agreement imperil other collaborative deals?


Update: On Feb. 2, the Department of the Interior and PacifiCorp announced that despite the congressional inaction that foiled the three-part Klamath Agreements, a decision has been reached to remove four dams on the lower Klamath River through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process.

During the 11 years that Greg Addington worked on the landmark water deal known as the Klamath Agreements, he missed more meals than he could count and many of his children’s basketball games. “These agreements were a major portion of my life,” says the former head of the Klamath Water Users Association. “We spent a lot of time negotiating, and formed friends and enemies. We watched people get married, get divorced, have children and die.”

The Klamath Agreements were designed to settle one of the West’s most intractable water wars. For decades, farmers, fishermen, Indian tribes and environmental groups battled over water 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 followed. Without some compromise, the tug of war would continue.

So, starting in 2002, more than 50 stakeholders sat down to negotiate. Eight arduous years later, they had a comprehensive three-part agreement to remove four dams in the Lower Klamath Basin to help fish, ensure enough water for irrigators, secure lands and water rights for tribal nations, and restore water quality — if Congress approved it.

But in December, Congress let the deal’s cornerstone expire, and now water management in the Klamath Basin is at risk of reprising earlier conflicts. Conservative legislators primarily objected to the prospect of dam removal, which ironically enough is likely to happen anyway.

Meanwhile, the treaty’s unraveling jeopardizes the other provisions that Addington and many others fought so long and hard for. Now, stakeholders are attempting to forge a new path. “We didn’t quite make it over the finish line, but what’s next?” says Addington. “No one is sure what that looks like yet.”


An algae bloom above Iron Gate Dam, part of PacifiCorp’s Klamath hydropower project.
Jim McCarthy/courtesy Lighthawk

Fractures first appeared in 2014, when Congress failed to approve the central pact, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA). Frustrated, the Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa Valley and Klamath tribes withdrew their support, and other groups spoke out about the deal’s flaws. “You don’t craft an agreement tying dam removal to a water deal, make it a billion dollars and think you will pass it,” says Jim McCarthy of WaterWatch, a conservation group excluded from the final negotiations. Nonetheless, the remaining 43 signatories believed Congress would pass the agreements if they had an extension to the end of 2015.

The deal, which would have required more than $500 million for restoration and tribal economic development, could have set a precedent for dam removal. But in the Republican-dominated House, those aspects doomed it. “The KBRA was really praised as this ‘kumbaya’ agreement, but that never impressed Congress,” says Tom Schlosser, the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s attorney. “It was too ambitious and expensive.” 

Its failure has had a ripple effect on the two remaining Klamath agreements. Dam removal held together the key provisions — water for wildlife refuges, minimum flows for irrigators, restoration of tribal fisheries. The tribes and environmental groups knew decommissioning wouldn’t happen without guaranteed water for farmers and ranchers. In turn, irrigators knew compromise couldn’t be reached without dam removal.

The Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement would set the decommissioning in motion, providing liability coverage to the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, and capping its cost for removal at $200 million. The third pact, the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, secured water to restore fisheries and protected the Klamath Tribes’ water rights — but its funding largely came from the KBRA. Brian Johnson of Trout Unlimited, a signatory, says re-negotiation for those deals began Jan. 26.

Dam removal could still happen eventually, though, once PacifiCorp goes through the federal relicensing process. The four Lower Klamath dams block fish from spawning grounds, contribute to algae infestations, and provide just 2 percent of the utility’s power. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will consider the cost of retrofitting the aging dams to provide fish passage and comply with the Clean Water Act. The estimated bill is $460 million, according to the Department of Interior — far more expensive than removing the facilities ($290 million). “It’s an ancient project, and it’s not cost-effective to retrofit,” Schlosser says. “Removal is very likely to happen, but the process can be slow.”

Some attempts to salvage the deals have emerged. In December, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who had earlier been willing to support dam removal, introduced a draft bill that didn’t include it. “It’s discouraging,” says Klamath Tribes Chairman Don Gentry. “The dams need to come out.” In January, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced a bill to implement all three pacts. But opponents call it a “non-starter” because it lacks funding for fish restoration. 

Now, without the pacts, there’s no funding to carry out the provisions for tribal fisheries, wildlife refuges or river restoration, and no legal mechanisms preventing the Klamath Tribes from asserting their senior water rights and shutting off irrigators’ water during drought periods.

Ultimately, the fate of the Klamath Agreements portends difficulty for future collaborative water deals. “I hope people realize how important this agreement is — not just for southern Oregon and Northern California, but for the world of water conflict management,” says Aaron Wolf, Oregon State University professor of water policy. “I hope politicians get the message and can do the right thing.”

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

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