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State Won't Hold Up Regulatory Process
By John Driscoll, Eureka Times-Standard
February 24, 2009

The state has struck a balance between making way for continued negotiations to remove four dams on the Klamath River and moving ahead with a regulatory process to deal with some of the river's worst water quality problems.

The State Water Resources Control Board's Executive Director Dorothy Rice issued a memorandum this weekend announcing its intent to prepare the environmental document concerning water quality certification for Pacificorp's Klamath dams. The decision comes after a request by parties trying to negotiate removal of the dams asked the state for a delay.

Rice's letter struck a compromise with those groups and others who urged the state agency to forge ahead. Rice wrote that the agency has an obligation to act without undue delay, and risks losing regulatory authority in the federal hydropower relicensing process if it hesitates.

Rice also wrote that the board is looking for ways to fund the environmental analysis, and that her decision does not mean that Pacificorp would be charged for it -- another concern raised as a potential threat to negotiations.

”The state water board continues to support negotiated solutions to complex water resources issues,” Rice wrote, but is obligated under the California Environmental Quality Act to move without delay.

A tentative deal to remove the four dams was reached in November between California, Oregon, the federal government and Pacificorp. The dams block salmon from reaching miles of spawning habitat and their reservoirs are choked with heavy toxic algae during the dry season. Their removal would be the largest project of its kind ever in the United States.

The parties involved in the negotiations have pledged to give the state water board a progress report in mid-May.

It's envisioned that the arrangement would be merged with another agreement struck by 26 groups -- including tribes, agencies, environmental organizations and farmers -- in January 2008 that addresses a wide range of other issues in the Klamath Basin.

The dam removal deal continues to be hashed out, with proponents arguing it's the clearest way forward to taking out the dams. Opponents say it has no assurances to clean up the fetid, algae-rich water behind the dams and gives Pacificorp too many ways to walk away from the deal.

Pacificorp spokesman Art Sasse wrote in an e-mail that while the company hoped the water board would approve a full delay of the process, “we do appreciate their efforts to move forward in a manner that doesn't undermine the good faith negotiations in the settlement talks.”

Chuck Bonham with Trout Unlimited, which is supporting the agreement in principal, said that the water board came up with a good solution in acknowledging its intent to look for money to pay for the environmental document. He believed it would be well received by those in the talks.

”I don't think they're read it as a declaration of war,” Bonham said.

Northcoast Environmental Center Klamath Campaign Coordinator Greg King said that Rice's conclusion was savvy, and should keep Pacificorp in the talks.

”They can't just leave negotiations now,” King said, “yet this very important CEQA process can move forward.”

Rice wrote that the board will take initial comments up to and beyond July 15, and any party's withholding of comments won't prejudice the process. Public comment will also be sought on the draft environmental document, she wrote.

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