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Dam deal still stokes controversy, Critics from all sides assail new deal on Klamath Basin water
Mateusz Perkowski, Capital Press 11/20/08

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The planned removal of four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River is a bitter pill to swallow for the basin's agricultural industry.

Some farmers regard the plan as an unpleasant but ultimately necessary remedy that will help heal divisions over the competing water needs of farmers and fish.

Others say dam removal will only inflame the Klamath Basin's ills over the long term.

"Common sense says, 'What are they thinking?'" said Tom Mallams, a hay farmer and president of the Klamath Off-Project Water Users, who opposes dam removal. "It's an absolute disaster, the way they're trying to do this."

Though disassembling power infrastructure is not something farmers in the region like to see, dam removal is a crucial step in resolving the long-standing dispute between farmers, tribes and conservationists, said Steve Kandra, a farmer and board member of the Klamath Water Users Association.

"It's a milepost in the process, and we've still got a way to go," he said. "We keep developing and fine-tuning the system."

Earlier this year, the Klamath Water Users Association negotiated a settlement with tribes and conservationists, known as the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, to end legal battles over water rights in the region.

Removing dams was the key component of the agreement, but that decision ultimately lies in the hands of PacifiCorp, the utility that owns them.

Throughout the year, PacifiCorp negotiated with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about re-licensing the dams. At the same time, the company discussed removing the structures with the Department of the Interior.

On Nov. 13, PacifiCorp announced it had brokered a deal with the Interior Department, as well as the states of Oregon and California, to dismantle the dams and re-open the Klamath River to fish passage by 2020.

Removal will be paid for with $200 million in surcharges on PacifiCorp customers in Oregon and California, as well as $250 million in general obligation bonds from the state of California.

Art Sasse, spokesman for PacifiCorp, stressed that the deal is not yet final. Dam removal is contingent on several conditions, he said, including an independent environmental review of the consequences.

The 12-year horizon will also be needed to find other ways of generating electricity, he said. The dams provide enough electricity to serve 70,000 homes, he said.

"This allows us enough time to plan for the replacement power," Sasse said.

The Klamath Off-Project Water Users believe the agreement is "ridiculous" because PacifiCorp would rather tear down a dependable source of renewable energy than build fish ladders, Mallams said.

"There are other options besides dam removal, but they don't even want to talk about that," he said, referring to removal proponents.

He also said the settlement agreement is unfair to farmers outside the Klamath Project irrigation system.

The agreement calls for the retirement of 30,000 acre feet of off-project water rights, but doesn't provide off-project growers with reasonable assurances regarding water rights and electricity costs, Mallams said.

"We are not opposed to a settlement, but it's got to be equitable," he said. "They've basically abandoned us."

Kandra said PacifiCorp's decision to remove the dams was fundamentally a business decision. The company determined that dam removal was the most feasible alternative, he said.

As for the overall settlement agreement, maintaining the status quo was not an option, and compromise is unavoidable, Kandra said.

For Klamath Off-project Water Users to gain traction in the settlement agreement, they need to become part of the process instead of throwing rocks at it, Kandra said.

"If people have things that need to be polished up and updated, they need to make a decision to be in the program," he said.

Mallams said that his group wanted a seat at the table but its ideas were consistently overruled by the other groups.

Discontent with the agreement isn't limited to off-project farmers, he said. Many KWUA members also believe the deal concedes too much to the tribes without gaining adequate protections for farmers, Mallams said.

"There is no widespread support in the Klamath Basin," he said.

There are defectors on the off-project side as well.

The Upper Klamath Water Users' Association represents off-project irrigators who support the deal, said Becky Hyde, a rancher and member of the group.

The settlement agreement simply offers the most stability for agriculture, so it doesn't make sense to stand in its way, she said.

"The train has left the station," Hyde said. "There's really only two options: settle or litigate. Litigation, to me, is a pretty big gamble."

Craig Tucker, spokesman for the Karuk tribe, said that tribes have faced opposition to the agreement as well - albeit for the opposite reasons. The Hoopa Valley tribe, for example, opposes the deal because it believes farmers are given water-use priority.

The deal has adversaries in the environmental camp as well. Groups like Klamath Riverkeeper, Trout Unlimited and American Rivers applauded PacifiCorp's announcement, but Oregon Wild wasn't impressed.

"It's a pretty bow on a package that's intended to pass the Bush administration's priorities into the next administration," said Steve Pedery, conservation director for the group.

In effect, the settlement agreement weakens protections for fish in return for dam removal, he said.

Despite such contentiousness within stakeholder groups, Tucker believes the coalition of farmers, tribes and conservationists is strong enough not to be pulled apart by detractors.

"I think we've staked out a sizable portion of the middle ground," he said.

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com.

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