Negotiating the Klamath

Negotiating the Klamath

Oregonian article about the ongoing Klamath settlement talks.

By Peter Sleeth
December 09, 2007

KLAMATH FALLS — Water cleaves the West.

If you doubt its razor edge, think of the Klamath River Basin where the water divides the people — fishermen from farmers, Native Americans from the dam owners, conservationists from one another.

At one time, Western rivers delineated the landscape, by their nature choosing which valley would grow, which would wither. In the Klamath Basin, people make that choice.

In the complex mechanics of irrigation in the Klamath’s Upper Basin, much of one lake is actually pumped by pipe through a volcanic ridge to sustain wetlands on the other side. Those wetlands were once nurtured by the Klamath River. But that river is now blocked by a railroad bank from reaching its ancient flood plain.

Today in Oregon, perhaps no watershed has been quite so cut up by man as the Klamath, from its headwaters to the Pacific Ocean.

In the rush to develop Oregon, dams rose as farms prospered in the Klamath’s Upper Basin, oddly a high desert environment once so swampy it was called the Everglades of the West. Now, 80 percent of those 350,000 acres of wetlands are drained and under cultivation. A series of six dams begins blocking the river starting 190 miles from the Pacific. Men first dammed the Klamath in 1903, finishing the last dam in 1962. The lower three dams have no fish ladders.

Though the good of all this — abundant food and low-cost electrical power — is evident, there is also a toll:

Dams block salmon from hundreds of miles of streams. Migrating birds dwindle to a trickle of their once mighty flocks. Behind the dams, the river slows and thickens with green algae, some years running too low for the remaining salmon to migrate from the ocean to spawn.

Even among the riven politics of the Klamath Basin today, almost everyone agrees: Somehow, the Klamath must be healed. This week, an unlikely group of negotiants is working on an unusual attempt at just that.

No easy answers

For an alliance of Native Americans, conservationists and fishermen, the holy grail on the Klamath River is to tear down four dams.

That job would require the largest destruction of dams in the nation’s history, and an unlikely peace among parties that have scuffled over the river’s water for decades.

A relatively unfettered Klamath, removal advocates maintain, would for the first time in 100 years open the river to salmon and revitalize a fishery that is so damaged it virtually stopped Oregon and California ocean salmon fishermen from working in 2006.

It is far from clear whether Portland-based PacifiCorp wants to keep its dams for the small amount of energy they generate or simply because, as the company has said, they generate “green” energy that does not produce greenhouse gases. The dams provide about 1.8 percent of the utility’s power capacity, or enough for about 70,000 homes, while generating net income of about $24 million, according to federal estimates.

The only clear thing in the debate over dams and the Klamath River’s health is the lack of clarity.

“The notion you are going to pull the dams and magically find yourself back in 1847 is just a fantasy,” says Toby Freeman, a spokesman for PacifiCorp, as he stood atop the Copco No. 1 dam last month. “This watershed has a 100-year history of human intervention, and not kindly human intervention, frankly.”

The debate is about more than dams, he says, and PacifiCorp as well as everyone else involved in the debate knows it. The question, says Freeman, is this: “What do you want (the river) to become and how do you get there?”

Three years ago, PacifiCorp applied for a new license to operate its Klamath River dams for the next 30 to 50 years, opening the chance to change the way the river worked. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates hydropower operations, requires extensive environmental analyses during its relicensing process.

In late 2004, PacifiCorp brought dozens of interest groups together in private settlement negotiations to discuss the relicensing — discussions that would grow to include a possible deal for the removal of four dams. Despite efforts to reach agreement by late 2005 and 2006, a deal eluded negotiators as each interest group made more demands.

Now things appear to be changing.

This week, approximately 26 interest groups working in secret will huddle in Redding, Calif., in an effort to strike an agreement on the fate of the Klamath from its headwaters at Klamath Falls to its mouth in Northern California. After years of fighting over who gets to use the river, participants say they are close to agreement.

Although PacifiCorp has not been a part of the settlement talks — except on an intermittent basis — it was asked to meet with subcommittees within the settlement group last week, Freeman said.

All of the approximately 26 members of the group signed confidentiality pledges. The Oregonian obtained an early version of the settlement agreement and discussed it with some current members of the group. The group includes Native American tribes, a variety of federal and state agencies from California and Oregon, as well as fishermen, farmers and environmental groups.

In the wide-ranging settlement, the parties reportedly are agreeing to tear out as many as four dams on the Klamath. The agreement would also guarantee a portion of the river’s flow for irrigation in the Upper Basin as well as subsidized electrical rates to help pump the water to far-flung fields. The agreement also includes millions of dollars for tribes to help restore salmon runs and millions more for local economic development efforts.

The dams would have to be removed by 2015, according to early versions of the agreement, and the water for irrigation is promised forever.

The total costs could reach $1 billion — and require state, private and congressional funding as well as the agreement of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the powerful arbiter of the fate of the nation’s dams.

The key is getting PacifiCorp to sign an agreement that the utility in the past has insisted it would consider only with one big catch — that any dam removal not cost its customers one cent.

“We’re not opposed to a dam removal outcome here, but any dam removal outcome that would be of interest to us would have to be in the best interests of our customers and respect our property rights,” Freeman said last week. “If we can resolve this relicensing in a manner that works out for everyone, that would be great.”

Critics, however, contend that the current agreement is being pushed by the Bush administration, promising subsidized power and water to farmers, which locks in farming in former wetlands and current wildlife refuges in the Upper Basin. Opponents say they will fight any guarantee of water to farmers that deprives downriver salmon runs.

“You can remove dams, and it’s necessary, but that doesn’t mean fish need less water,” said Bob Hunter of WaterWatch of Oregon. “What are you going to do, open up all this habitat and then kill them with low flows?”

WaterWatch and the environmental group Oregon Wild were excluded from the most recent round of settlement talks after they objected to the guaranteed flows of river water for irrigators that might lessen downstream flows for salmon.

Anatomy of a waterway

Most rivers springing from the Oregon Cascades get more than half their water from rain and snow. They then flow into lowlands, where irrigation takes its share.

The Klamath River is unusual because it takes the opposite tact. It is, in a sense, upside down.

Its headwater is Upper Klamath Lake, and the river’s upper reaches are surrounded by 180,000 acres of farms in the Oregon high desert near the city of Klamath Falls. Those farms, through a project run by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, withdraw 10 percent to 12 percent of the river’s total flow before the Klamath goes anywhere.

In the lower reaches of the watershed in Northern California are steep canyons and a temperate rain forest — which would normally be expected at a river’s headwaters. It is also one of the few Western rivers that flow through both the Cascade Mountains and then the coastal mountains to the sea.

The Upper Basin farms drew national attention — and the alleged involvement of Vice President Dick Cheney — in 2001 during a drought, when irrigation withdrawals were shut off to save downstream runs of fish. A year later, when the farmers again began receiving their promised water, the largest mass die-off of fish occurred when at least 35,000 to 70,000 salmon died. The deaths were caused by low water conditions and disease in the lower Klamath River below the dams.

Although no scientific proof connected the irrigators’ withdrawals and the fish die-off, the event became a battle standard for groups wanting the dams removed.

Although there are six dams on the river, two near Klamath Falls have fish ladders and primarily serve irrigation needs. Those two — known as Link River and Keno dams — are not candidates for removal.

About 30 river miles south of Klamath Falls is the J.C. Boyle Dam, the crown jewel of PacifiCorp’s Klamath dams. It is relatively small, 68 feet in height, and generates about 1 percent of all the power produced by Pacific Power, a PacifiCorp subsidiary that operates the Klamath dams. It does that by taking 95 percent of the river, sluicing it downstream for four miles in a long canal set high above the Klamath River canyon, then flushing it through turbines.

Then the water is returned to the canyon, creating some of the roughest rapids in Oregon.

During the next 25 miles the river becomes still and green with algae, forming a 5-mile-long reservoir behind Copco No. 1 dam, a 126-foot-high structure built 60 years ago in a narrow canyon. A quarter-mile downstream is its sister dam, Copco No. 2. Neither has fish ladders, meaning that since 1925 no salmon have gone beyond this point on the river.

In 1962, Pacific Power completed its final dam on the river, the Iron Gate Dam, a 173-foot-high earthen structure 190 miles from the ocean. Also with no fish ladder, it blocked all upriver salmon migration.

Only below Iron Gate can the Klamath run unhindered to the Pacific.

The Klamath used to be the third-largest producer of salmon on the West Coast, behind only the Columbia and the Sacramento rivers. Today, its run of coho salmon is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and its run of fall chinook salmon is so low it can, in weak years, cripple the commercial salmon fishing season in the Pacific.

Settlement framework

After more than two years of negotiations, a stalemate was broken in January. Federal agencies involved in the talks introduced a so-called settlement framework as a basis for bringing the groups together.

Though dam removal was guaranteed, so were water deliveries for farmers in the Upper Klamath Basin. Guaranteeing the water, and thus the farming, outraged some environmentalists.

“This was a deal-killer for us,” said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild.

Today, WaterWatch and Oregon Wild are working outside the settlement talks.

Armed with the new framework, the plan was to have a settlement agreement by November. Now, the agreement could come out by late December or early January, negotiators say.

A key part of any agreement will be costs. A federal evaluation of keeping the dams versus retaining them and building required fish ladders shows that the fish passage measures would cost an estimated $300 million.

Removing the dams would be in the neighborhood of $120 million, according to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff estimates.

“The thing that I would argue is unique in this dam fight is the strength of our economic argument that favors dam removal,” says Craig Tucker of the Karuk Tribe of Northern California. He says negotiations are close to finished.

With those dam removal numbers, released last month, the incentive for PacifiCorp to join its opponents may be too great to resist, although no one is willing to call the fight over the Klamath anywhere near over.

“There is still so many wild cards out there,” Pedery said. “This slow-motion dance has been going on, and nobody has dealt with, “If we take these dams down, how much is it going to cost and who is going to (pay for) it?”

Peter Sleeth: 503-294-4119;


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