A Klamath settlement that isn’t

A Klamath settlement that isn’t

Op-ed from the Oregonian on the draft Klamath settlement proposal.

January 17, 2008


Don’t break out the champagne just yet to celebrate the sweeping settlement announced Tuesday for restoring Klamath River salmon runs.

It’s not really a settlement. It’s more like a real estate agent declaring he’s got a great deal on a house for you, but the current owner doesn’t know about it yet.

In the Klamath case, the current owner is PacifiCorp, the Portland-based utility. It owns four Klamath River hydroelectric dams that a coalition of farmers, fishermen, tribes, conservation groups and government agencies decided should be removed to help endangered salmon.

Trouble is, PacifiCorp was left out of the months of talks leading up to Tuesday’s announcement. And there’ll be no deal on Klamath dam removal without PacifiCorp on board, a decidedly remote prospect at this point.

The coalition’s plan has other gaping holes. It hinges on Oregon, California and Congress agreeing to pay nearly $1 billion in costs, and it contains no provision for paying for dam removal, leaving that $180 million tab for PacifiCorp.

Understandably, utility executives called the planning process irresponsible for freezing out the hundreds of thousands of ratepayers who would be affected by dam removal. PacifiCorp, a unit of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., controlled by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., initiated the discussions in 2004 when it applied for a new license to operate its Klamath dams for up to 50 more years.

The relicensing talks bogged down in 2006 and were dissolved. In 2007, a coalition of 28 interest groups began new discussions, excluding PacifiCorp and eventually giving the boot to two conservation groups that complained the plan protected irrigators more than salmon.

Nonetheless, it is heartening to see so many former opponents come together to resolve bitter differences over how to share Klamath Basin water between irrigators and fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. Less impressive is the public relations campaign trumpeting a faux settlement reached without involvement of the biggest player of all.

PacifiCorp has not closed the door to removal of the dams, but it doesn’t want its customers to have to absorb the cost.

Now, of course, the utility will be invited back to the table, where fish-recovery proponents have some strong arguments for dam removal.

One of these arguments is economic. A new operating license for the dams would require PacifiCorp to spend about $300 million to build fish ladders, while recent state and federal reports conclude that dam removal would be less expensive.

The next round of talks must address another reality: The four dams produce enough power for a city the size of Eugene. Where would the replacement power come from, what would it cost and who would pay for it?

The Klamath debate isn’t just about fish and irrigation. It’s also about precious clean energy.