A deal on Klamath’s dams

A deal on Klamath’s dams

Article in the San Francisco Chronicle on the draft Klamath settlement proposal.

San Francisco Chronicle
January 21, 2008


For complexity, the years-long water war along the Klamath River rivals the Middle East. A list of contending parties, long-held grievances and state borders have strained hopes of settlement. Until now.

Some two dozen interest groups ranging from back-country sugar beet farmers to coastal fishing groups have reached an agreement that could lead to demolition of four century-old dams straddling the California-Oregon border. Much remains undecided such as the source of an estimated $1 billion to remove the dams and improve the river system.

But it’s hard to miss the main point: nearly all sides believe the dams can come down. If that happens, the demolition work would produce the largest dam removal in the nation. Operators of other river-blocking barriers will be on notice.

For now, focusing on this river alone will do. The Klamath, once a productive storehouse of salmon, is a sickly stream due to diversions, pollution and the targeted dams near its headwaters some 350 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Just as its problems stem from many sources, so do the active players looking to improve their chances in any remake of the river. The agreement calls for steady flows of irrigation water to Oregon farmers, with the amounts varying during wet and dry years. Environmental and fishing groups will be assured of more downstream flows that, over time, should help salmon rebound and repopulate 60 miles of the dammed-off river. A devastating drought in 2001 and water diversions the next year killed some 33,000 fish, a double disaster that kick-started the settlement talks.

One holdout is the dam’s owner, the PacifiCorp power company controlled by financier and philanthropist Warren Buffett. While not ruling out the dam removals, a spokesman says the company needs to know how demolition will be paid for, where dam-generated power for 70,000 customers will come from, and what liabilities might come from taking down the structures, among the oldest in the West.

Also, the Hoopa tribe, with a down-river reservation, and several environmental groups feel the agreement is too generous in giving farmers irrigation water.

Important questions are still unanswered, and not all participants have had their way. But the chance to rebuild a dying river in a way that could instruct the rest of the country is an moment that must be seized.


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