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Yanking dams to be studied - and that's good

Published July 25, 2004

It sounds so simple: Just remove the Klamath River Dams that PacifiCorp wants to renew its license on and wait for the salmon to come swimming back into Upper Klamath Lake. Even the $40 million price tag that conservation groups have estimated for removal of the dams isn't much as major public works projects go.

But getting rid of the dams isn't easy, and even if it were, it doesn't necessarily follow that salmon and steelhead will happily return to the upper Klamath Basin to spawn.

Nonetheless, we think the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made the right call when it decided to study the dams' removal. That wasn't included in PacifiCorp's relicensing application.

A group of environmental organizations produced a study last week saying the dams' removal would be cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

It's all part of the once-every-50 years process for PacifiCorp, which operates five dams on the Klamath River below Keno Dam that produce 151 megawatts of power. Environmentalist organizations have been dismissive of the importance of that 151 megawatts, though on a hot summer's day in southern California - or a cold winter's day in northern Oregon - it comes in handy. Since it's hydropower, it's quick to get on line to meet peak needs.

FERC's decision to study the possibility of taking out the dams lessens the chance the issue will wind up in court and, if it goes to court anyway, it should reduce the time and costly litigation.

PacifiCorp has already said that it will take two Link River powerplants out of production since the power they produce doesn't justify the expense of putting in the new fish screens that would be necessary. Keno Dam isn't part of the process because it doesn't generate power.

For those who came in late, the Link River runs through Klamath Falls to connect Upper Klamath Lake to the north and Lake Ewauna to the south. The Klamath River begins in Lake Ewauna.

The A Canal, which furnishes most of the water for the Klamath Reclamation Project, takes water out of Upper Klamath Lake just above the Link River Dam, which controls the lake's water level. The Link River Dam has key importance both to irrigation and in meeting lake levels legally required for the endangered sucker species, but isn't part of the relicensing process.

The five dams that are subject to the relicensing play no role in irrigation in the Klamath Reclamation Project. But that doesn't mean there aren't major implications for agriculture.

What happens, for example, if the dams were taken out and salmon find Upper Klamath Basin water inhospitable, as seems likely? What kind of pressure would be put on upper Basin agriculture to "do something" to improve the water?

When it comes to "doing something" about Basin water, the standard answer seems to be to take more land out of production, even though thousands of acres already have been returned to wetlands.

There's nothing simple about Basin water issues.

The "H&N view" represents the opinion of the newspaper's editorial board.


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