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Dam Deal Advances Bush's Agenda
Felice Pace
November 17, 2008

Felice Pace

This week the Bush Administration, Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp and the state governments of Oregon and California announced an “Agreement in Principle” to remove four of the five dams on the Klamath River. If all goes according to their plan, removal of four dams would begin in 2020. A fifth dam – Keno in Oregon – would be transferred to the US Bureau of Reclamation.

Members of three Klamath River tribes and others cheered the agreement even as they wondered why it is necessary to wait until 2020 to begin what promises to be a decade-long dam removal project. But the Hoopa Tribe -- as well as other environmental groups including Friends of the River, the Northcoast Environmental Center and Oregon Wild -- criticized the agreement. Critics say it unnecessarily delays dam removal for more than a decade and does not actually guarantee that they will ever come out.

Major river and fishing groups including American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association have signaled their support for the deal by joining the Bush Interior Department in a letter to the California Water Resources Control Board requesting delay of the Clean Water Certification process which the dams must pass before they can be relicensed. The Clean Water Certification is widely viewed as a hurdle which PacifiCorp could not overcome because of the pollution the dams and reservoirs generate. This includes toxic algae, water temperature inhospitable to salmon and trout and low dissolved oxygen. The poor water quality has been linked to epidemics which kill young salmon and other fish in and below the reservoirs and dams.

The dam removal deal is also being criticized because it would include a controversial water agreement which, if it becomes final, would give irrigators in the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project a legislative guarantee that they would be first in line for Klamath River water. Critics say this would make it necessary to lease water from the irrigators in drought years in order to provide river flows needed by salmon and other fish – including threatened Coho salmon. Some Klamath River and salmon advocates see this as unsustainable and a threat to the Public Trust Doctrine which has been used to restore streamflow – most notably in a famous lawsuit involving Mono Lake and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water Authority.

The water deal has also been criticized because it does not provide assurance that the Klamath’s national wildlife refuges will have sufficient water during drought years. Klamath refuges host 80% of Pacific Flyway birds during migration and the largest concentration of wintering Bald Eagles outside Alaska. Non-federal irrigators could also be asked to give up more water for fish in order to make up for the water irrigators in the federal Klamath Project are not supplying. Some of these non-federal irrigators criticized the deal announced last week.

The dam deal calls for a cost-benefit analysis by the federal government. If the feds decide that the cost of dam removal exceeds benefits, the dams would not come down and the entire process of seeking a license to operate the dams would begin again. There are several other conditions which could nix dam removal in the dozen or so years between a final agreement and demolition. Critics say this would allow PacifiCorp to manipulate the process to avoid dam removal indefinitely.

Dam removal would also depend on the State of California coming up with $250 million in water bond money to finance part of the removal. Another $200 million would come from PacifiCorp’s electric customers. A consumer advocacy group has criticized charging electric customers for dam removal and one commentator has suggested that Governor Schwarzenegger is supporting Klamath dam removal as an inducement to voters to approve bond financing for two new dams and reservoirs in the Sacramento Valley as well as a controversial canal to move northern California water around the Sacramento River Delta to corporate irrigators and cities in southern California.

The linked dam and water deals are likely the last attempt by the Bush Administration to lock in its vision of how to end conflict over water in the Klamath River Basin. That vision would return those who get water from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project to the head of the line for Klamath water in exchange for a promise of dam removal in the future. It has been effective in splitting the coalition of tribes, environmental, river and fishing groups which previously stood together for restoration of the Klamath River and recovery of Klamath Salmon.

Some Klamath watchers wonder why this vision for the Klamath is being backed now when Bush is about to leave office. They say the Klamath River, Klamath salmon and the Klamath refuges would get a better deal from the Obama Administration.

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