Maybe we can turn the clock back

Maybe we can turn the clock back

Daily Astorian editorial regarding the draft Klamath settlement proposal.

Daily Astorian
January 22, 2008

Negotiations in the Klamath Basin could lead to PacifiCorp dam removal
It’s a rare thing when we have the chance to turn the clock’s hands back and undo a big environmental mistake. That’s what may happen a few years from now if a surprising agreement among competing user groups comes to pass in the Klamath River basin.

The Klamath used to be a key salmon watershed, until four hydroelectric dams were constructed starting nearly a century ago. In what seemed like a good idea at the time, this was a helpful but not strictly necessary way of getting dependable water supplies to an agricultural reclamation project, with rural electrification as a major side benefit.

Farming remains economically and culturally important in the basin, with 220,000 acres under cultivation by members of the Klamath Water Users Association. Keeping the irrigation ditches flowing resulted in a major salmon die-off a few years ago. This in turn resulted in a devastating closure of the ocean salmon fishing season.

Now, many farmers in the area have agreed to a legal framework that may allocate water in a way that meets the demands of agriculture and fisheries. Federal fish and wildlife bureaucrats are effusive in their praise for how the scarce water “baby” is being cut up and shared out.

But from being something of a happy party without many guests, the electricity produced by the dams has become a vital resource in its own right. The dams generate enough power for 70,000 houses, with no greenhouse gases. This is no small thing, and their owner, PacifiCorp, is loath to give them up. It is even more reluctant to agree to anything that might make dam removal a financial burden to rate payers or shareholders. This is entirely understandable.

The total cost of the deal that has been worked out is about $1 billion. As much as half that much would have to be spent in coming years to mitigate for the damage that dams cause, however, so the real cost of restoration is closer to $500 million – still no small cost.

There are some others with serious doubts about the deal, in addition to the utility. The Hupa Indian Tribe, a different group of farmers and at least one environmental group all think the baby isn’t being split in the right way, or shouldn’t be split at all. And they all have valid points.

Like other deals being cut in the last year of the most environmentally villainous presidency in living memory, this one bears careful examination. In particular, any agreement should be fully reviewable and subject to amendment by a new set of federal administrators next year.

This compromise may be cause for celebration. But let’s not pop the champagne corks just yet.

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