U.S. Orders Modification
of Klamath River Dams Removal May Prove More
By Blaine Harden Washington Post January
SEATTLE, Jan. 30 -- In a decision that
could trigger the largest dam-removal project
in world history, the federal government said
today that four hydroelectric dams on the
troubled Klamath River must undergo costly
modifications to allow passage for salmon.
Since modifying the aging dams would cost an
estimated $300 million, removing them has
suddenly become a much more plausible -- and
considerably cheaper -- option for their
owner, PacifiCorp, a company owned by Warren
E. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Removing the dams would cost $101 million less
than modifying them as ordered by federal
agencies, according to a recent report written for
the California Energy Commission.
Although a number of dams across the United States
and around the world have been removed or
scheduled for removal in recent years, federal
officials say they know of no other river in the
world for which the removal of four hydroelectric
dams is under review.
If the dams were removed, the Klamath, which
straddles the Oregon-California border, has
extraordinary potential to rebound as a major
salmon resource, according to fish biologists and
regional officials. They say a revival could
dramatically improve commercial and sport
fisheries along the coasts of Oregon and Northern
The Klamath once supported the third-largest runs
of salmon on the West Coast. But in the more than
eight decades since it was dammed, it has become
one of the most fought-over rivers in the West --
with massive fish kills, blooms of algae, angry
irrigators, litigious environmentalists and Indian
tribes whose diet and culture have been
substantially damaged by the disappearance of
salmon. Biologists blame the dams as a
contributing factor to the near shutdown last
summer of commercial salmon fishing along 700
miles of the Oregon-California coastline.
The four dams produce electricity for about 70,000
customers. The power is worth about $29 million a
year, according to the California Energy
"The Klamath is a degraded system, but it is
uniquely restorable," said David Diamond, an
analyst with the Interior Department. "These dams
are the only barriers to fish passage from the
headwaters to the Pacific. The watershed is 80
percent under federal ownership and it doesn't
have major cities or other development that
prevents the return of healthy salmon runs."
For years, pressure to remove the four Klamath
dams has come from Indian tribes, conservation
groups and commercial fishermen. But in a move
that surprised many environmentalists, the Bush
administration -- through the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration's National Marine
Fisheries Service -- concluded last year that dam
removal would be best for salmon.
The issue has been forced on PacifiCorp because
federal licenses for the dams, the oldest of which
was completed in 1918, are up for renewal. The
Portland, Ore., power company had proposed that it
be allowed to trap and haul salmon around its dams
as a way to revive the river's salmon fishery.
But the joint announcement by the Interior
Department and NOAA rejects that proposal. As a
necessary condition for obtaining a new federal
license, they said that PacifiCorp must build
costly fish ladders and other fish-passage devices
at each of the dams on the Klamath.
"We are disappointed," said Dave Kvamme, a
spokesman for PacifiCorp. "We are looking for an
outcome that best serves our customers. We are
going to have to look at costs and risks."
In three other license-renewal cases, PacifiCorp
has agreed to remove dams from Western rivers. The
company, too, has participated for more than two
years in confidential negotiations with other
Klamath River stakeholders in what to do about
reviving the health of the river.
"We have never ruled out dam removal as one
potential outcome," Kvamme said, while adding that
his company urgently needs to create more
electricity generation and regards the dams as "an
extremely valuable resource."
Buffett, whose holdings include PacifiCorp, is a
major shareholder in The Washington Post.
In the six Western states where PacifiCorp sells
electricity, the company would need to secure the
approval of public utility commissions to raise
electricity rates to recover the cost of
demolishing or modifying the Klamath dams.
Because removing the dams would be cheaper than
modifying them, there will be strong pressure on
PacifiCorp from the commissions to get rid of
them, said Steve Rothert, director of the
California field office of American Rivers, an
environmental group involved in negotiations over
"It is in their ratepayers' interest to remove the
dams and replace the power," Rothert said.
Kvamme said PacifiCorp has not yet determined
whether modifying the dams would be less expensive
in the long run than taking them out.