Klamath groups offer plan for removing dams to help salmon
Associated Press article on the draft Klamath settlement proposal.
GRANTS PASS — A deal calling for removal of four hydroelectric dams on Klamath River to restore struggling salmon runs has been forged among farmers, Native American tribes, fishermen, conservation groups and government agencies battling over scarce water in the region.
The plan announced today came after two years of closed-door negotiations among parties that are bitter enemies over how to divide Klamath Basin water between a federal irrigation project and fish protected by the Endangered Species Act.
If the dams are removed, it would open 300 miles of rivers that have not seen salmon in the past century, increasing places to spawn and rear for the fish.
The dams could come out as early as 2015.
Removing the four Klamath Dams would be the biggest dam removal in the country to date, said Steve Rothert of American Rivers, a conservation group.
Salmon have struggled to survive in the region where competition for water between farms and fish has been intense, especially in drought years.
Removal of the dams and restoration of salmon depends on approval of about $500 million in new funding over 10 years, primarily from Congress, and an agreement from the dams owner, Portland-based utility PacifiCorp.
“What we’ve come up with is a blueprint for how to solve the Klamath crisis,” said Craig Tucker, Klamath Campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, which has working for years to restore dwindling salmon catches that were once a keystone of their diet and culture.
“We wanted to put together a plan that keeps fishing communities whole and farm communities whole, he added from his home in Northern California. The only thing standing in the way of where we are today and resolution is Warren Buffetts Klamath dams.”
PacifiCorp is a unit of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which is controlled by Warren Buffetts Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
PacifiCorp has previously said it would be willing to remove the dams if its ratepayers don’t have to pay. But it has also been pursuing a new 30- or 50-year operating license, which would require it to spend about $300 million to build fish ladders. The dams produce enough power for about 70,000 homes.
“It’s worth taking a pretty serious look at it,” said PacifiCorp spokesman Paul Vogel. “Not being in the room (during negotiations), we don’t know whether anyone has seriously represented our customers on our behalf, because our customers have to be protected in this.”
Steve Thompson, director of the California-Nevada office of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento, Calif., said the Bush administration has been very supportive of the agreement, which must still be reviewed by federal agencies, including U.S. Justice Department.
Thompson said he knew of no dam removal project in the country that has restored more habitat or would generate more fish than this one.
The agreement also calls for giving the 1,000 farms on Klamath Reclamation Project cut-rate electricity to run irrigation pumps, guaranteeing farmers can lease lands on wildlife refuges, reducing the amount of water diverted from rivers and reservoirs for irrigation, and increasing the amount of water dedicated to salmon.
Opposition to the agreement is coming from Hoopa Tribe, based on Trinity River, which flows into the Klamath below the dams; some farmers who are not part of Klamath Reclamation Project; and two conservation groups tossed out of the talks last spring, Oregon Wild and WaterWatch.
Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild and Robert Hunter of WaterWatch were skeptical the deal could actually produce the extra water salmon need to thrive, or that Congress could come up with the money during tight budget times. They characterized the agreement as a sweetheart deal for the Bush administration to give farmers what they want.
“What started out with high hopes with dam removal turned into a Christmas tree that shovels taxpayer money into every special interest in the Klamath Basin,” Pedery said.
The Klamath was once the third most productive salmon river system on the West Coast, but it has declined as a result of misguided hatchery practices, overfishing, development and the loss of habitat to dams, mining, and logging.
Fish returns have become so marginal that in 2006 commercial salmon fishing had to be
nearly shut down off most of Oregon and California, causing a federal disaster declaration.
During a drought in 2001, irrigation was shut off to most of Klamath Reclamation Project to protect threatened suckers in Upper Klamath Lake, the irrigation projects primary reservoir, and threatened coho salmon in Klamath River, the lake’s natural outlet.
When irrigation was restored in 2002, some 70,000 adult chinook salmon died in the river from diseases caused by low and warm water conditions.
After the commercial fishing collapse in 2006, governors of Oregon and California called for a summit to find solutions, but it never came off.