NEC weighs stance on Klamath agreement

NEC weighs stance on Klamath agreement

By John Driscoll
May 14, 2008


Scientific and legal reviews commissioned by the Northcoast Environmental Center may have the environmental group reconsidering its position not to support the Klamath River settlement agreement hatched earlier this year.

Utah State University Klamath researcher Thomas Hardy wrote to the NEC in an April review that his initial concerns about the deal have been met. Known for his work on how much water salmon need in the river, Hardy said that the agreement represents an extension of that work, and that conditions in the river would vastly improve under a final agreement that removes Pacificorp’s four dams.

San Rafael hydrologist Dave Kamman also wrote to the NEC in late April, saying the issues he raised were addressed in an April scientific meeting between state, federal, tribal and other scientists. He said, however, that a layman reading the agreement as written might detect an imbalance between upstream irrigators and fishery proponents and tribes — a perceived imbalance he recommended be corrected.

”If asked if I would support the settlement agreement as currently written,” Kamman wrote, “I would do so.”

The settlement was crafted after months of closed-door negotiations, and was supported by the 26 environmental groups, irrigators, tribes, agencies and fishery interests that participated. Pacificorp is currently seeking a new 30- to 50-year license for the dams on the Klamath, but a settlement could supplant the terms of the new license.

But the pact also met with opposition from some conservation groups, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, and in March, the NEC. Some saw the NEC’s rejection of the draft deal as potentially eroding support for a global settlement that would include removing the four hydropower dams.

The NEC said at the time that the pact provides guarantees for irrigators in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project around Upper Klamath Lake — but not for salmon. In fact, the NEC maintained that the deal could threaten the existence of salmon in the watershed, one of the most crucial fisheries on the West Coast.

On Tuesday, NEC Executive Director Greg King said he was heartened by Hardy and Kamman’s reviews, but said sticking points remain. Among them are the NEC’s nearly four-decade opposition to farming on wildlife refuges in the upper basin, King said, which the agreement would allow. Signing onto the agreement would dedicate it to that position, he said.

He also wanted to hear from Arcata scientist Bill Trush, who also voiced reservations about the deal early on. Trush could not be reached by the Times-Standard by deadline.

It would require a majority vote by the 12-member NEC board to change its position to one of support.

”Whatever we do, it will be a really well-educated decision,” King said.

Another NEC concern was whether the agreement retained the rights of environmental groups to sue under the federal Endangered Species Act and other laws if they believed salmon or other protected species were in jeopardy from management under the pact.

A confidential legal analysis by San Francisco-based Environmental Advocates, commissioned by the NEC and obtained by the Times-Standard, found that the agreement is more a working draft than a binding legal document. Legislation and administrative actions would be more important than the agreement itself, Environmental Advocates attorneys wrote.

Whether an environmental group signed the agreement or not, it would give up few, if any, rights, they wrote.

”None of these actions would have any direct legal consequence, though they would tend to make executions of the agreement by others — and the enactment of crucial related enabling legislation more or less likely,” the attorneys wrote.

That is exactly what proponents of the deal have worried about.

Yurok Tribe policy analyst Troy Fletcher said that the tribe knew that credible science went into the agreement, and it was disappointing to see opposition to it. Conditions for salmon in the river — the Yurok’s chief concern — would improve under the settlement, compared to the status quo, he said.

”I think there’s no question that the Yurok Tribe wants everyone possible on board the boat as we cross the finish line,” Fletcher said.

Advocates of the Klamath pact see bipartisan support as critical, and needed to seize advantage of the timing of the relicensing process — which won’t occur again for decades.

Hundreds of miles of former spawning grounds would be reopened to salmon if the dams were taken down. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently put out a white paper which says that water quality in the river would improve, water temperatures would naturally fluctuate, and blue-green algae would be stifled. Diseases would likely be checked, and salmon production significantly improved, the paper said, and spring chinook salmon could once again become a dominant run on the river. Some of these benefits would be realized even before the dams were removed, the paper reads.

Bob Hunter with WaterWatch in Eagle Point, Ore., insisted that a number of problems remain with the draft agreement, including questions about whether water for fish will be available in dry years. He said in a review of the agreement that Klamath Project irrigators would be getting special deals, including more than $40 million to offset rising electricity costs, and a cost sharing agreement to continue operating the project. He said it’s reasonable for environmental groups to withhold approval until an agreement with dam removal included is crafted.

Others see support as vital to keeping the agreement in motion. Walt Duffy with the California Cooperative Fish Research Unit at Humboldt State University said that dam removal is the most important thing that can be done for salmon in the river.

”I think it would be very good for the NEC to recognize or acknowledge that maybe there was some misunderstanding of what was intended by the agreement,” Duffy said, “and that their support would be important to get the thing moving again.”