Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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* Players weigh in on federal study that opts for the removal of Klamath River dams
* Environmental impacts and habitat recovery
Historical basis for removal
by Devan Schwartz,
Herald and News 4/14/13.
The Department of Interior’s recommendation last week to remove four dams from the Klamath River puts one more piece of the local water use puzzle in place.
The environmental impact statement weighs the pros and cons of five alternatives ranging from no action to removing all four hydroelectric dams operated by PacifiCorp. The dams in question are J.C. Boyle, Copco 1 and 2 and Iron Gate. It is estimated the removal and restoration project could cost upwards of $1 billion, yet funding has not gained any support in Congress.
Meanwhile, a mild winter and delayed irrigation season have created anxiety in the agricultural community over water availability. Much focus has been placed on water adjudication, which determines who gets how much water, when, and for what beneficial purposes — leading to possible water shutoffs.
The Klamath Water Users Association met Thursday night to discuss adjudication and the year’s uncertain water supply. The bad news is that snowpack is at 63 percent of average and precipitation is the lowest since 1955. The good news is irrigation officials believe they will be able to deliver on all the water contracts this year if users practice good conservation.
KWUA director Greg Addington said the Bureau of Reclamation’s Environmental Impact Statement could create momentum for congressional approval of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, a key component of which is dam removal. The KBRA aims to establish reliable water and power supplies for agriculture and the National Wildlife Refuges, and restore and sustain natural fish production. It also aims to help the Klamath Tribes acquire a 92,000-acre parcel called the Mazama Tree Farm. The KHSA and KBRA have been extended for two years, even though required legislative approval has been delayed by Congress. About 95 percent of work on the agreements has been accomplished. It now needs congressional action.
“What ought to be momentum is an unprecedented uncertainty and potential for disruption of local communities with insufficient water supplies,” Addington said.
“What we really need is leadership from Congress. What we want to see is a hearing on the agreements. Let’s debate them. It’s surprising we can’t seem to get to that point. We’ve dodged train wrecks the last few years (with low water supplies), but that’s not going to keep up.”
The EIS claims to bring the Klamath Basin closer to resolving generations-long water conflicts, both exciting supporters and incensing opponents.
Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of the Fisherman’s Association and the Institute of Fisheries Resources, said studies began more than five years ago with reviews completed by three independent science panels.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and mythology that’s hard to puncture. As it turns out, nearly all the scary concerns people raised were without factual basis,” Spain said.
Dam removal a win-win
Spain described dam removal, along with the KBRA and KHSA agreements, as win-win.
“You get cheaper power, more reliable irrigation supply, restored fisheries. You also get a lot less conflict in the Basin, avoiding those problems we saw in the last decade of rotating crises. It stabilizes the whole situation and makes it much more sustainable.”
Alongside all other concerns, Spain said the dams can no longer operate at a profit. “They’re owned by a company (Pacifi-Corp) that has an obligation to its customers to deliver power cost-effectively. Those dams are also private property. There is a legal requirement for a public utility to maximize benefit to its customers and minimize the cost. Everything points to dam removal and replacing the power by cheaper and more modern facilities elsewhere.”
Culture, water health and fish
Klamath Tribes vice-chairman Don Gentry said the EIS also addresses the cultural importance of healthy waterways and access to fishing.
“Salmon were important for subsistence tribal fishing. Our tribal members caught them in the Beatty area and outside of Chiloquin,” Gentry said. “The woman who gave me my Klamath name was alive when salmon were in this area and she told me she remembers salmon when she was a little girl.
“It’s in our legends, it’s in our language,” added Gentry. “Even nontribal ranchers traded beef for salmon with tribal members. It’s so unfortunate how some folks want to say they weren’t ever here or weren’t in any condition to be usable. But our history verifies that isn’t true.
Gentry was impressed by the thoroughness of the EIS. “They really did a good job soliciting information from the public. I’m not familiar with any other EIS with the level of peer-review this one has because of the sensitivity and technicality of the issue.”
Spain also praised the EIS, describing it as “the definitive document for how all the pieces of the Klamath Basin jigsaw fit together.”
The document, although lengthy, is publicly available.
Related documents can be read or downloaded at klamathrestoration.gov. A hard copy of the EIS is available at Klamath County library branch, with one available to borrow at the main branch.
Environmental impacts and habitat recovery
Over the years, sediment has built up behind the Klamath River dams — and what becomes of it upon dam removal is an important point related to fish and water quality.
Critics such as state Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, have stated that meandering lower portions of the river would be slow to flush out sediment and would negatively affect long-term fish habitats as the river below the dams would fill in with silt.
The Environmental Impact Statement acknowledges these increases in sediment below the dams, along with increases in dissolved oxygen harmful to fish health and water quality. Nevertheless, the research predicts the damage would last less than two years.
Short-term impacts on coho salmon, steelhead, pacific lamprey, green sturgeon and freshwater mussels are also addressed in the EIS with various mitigation measures outlined.
In the long-term, the EIS describes better fish habitat, a reduction of fish disease, and the “nearly complete elimination of toxic algal blooms” near the current dams and downstream.
And though not everyone’s concerns center on fish and free-flowing rivers and ecosystem health, coalitions like those formed around the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and dam removal unite disparate groups by design.
Klamath Water Users Association director Greg Addington said, “The EIS is checking a box in a process they said they would do. We’re not in this because of dam removal … our motivation is a messed up water year like the one we’re about to see.”
Historical basis for removal
Contemporary life in the Klamath Basin is shaped by water law and politics, and the timeline of its development follows the same path. What led to growth and prosperity also led to conflict and harm, according to the Environmental Impact Statement prepared in consideration of dam removal.
The government research begins on a platform of how the Klamath Basin developed. The creation of the Klamath Project and connected waterways are examined along with cultural implications for the developing communities and affected Native Americans.
Reservations were first established in 1855 and by 1905 the Interior Secretary authorized the Klamath Project, with water diversions and dam construction already in the planning stages.
“While the construction and operation of reservoirs and dams on the Klamath River facilitated development, growth and expansion of an agricultural economy in the region, it also contributed to declines in fisheries and water quality, as well as impacts on tribal resources and culture,” the document states.
Don Gentry, vice-chairman of the Klamath Tribes said, “We were fish people historically and the fish were very important to us. The EIS really treats that as a substantive issue — it’s not skirted, and I appreciate that. It attempts to address the human impacts to tribes and irrigators and those who live along the waters.”
The EIS also describes the infamous water shut-off of 2001 and a fish-kill in 2002. It details how negotiations leading to the KHSA and KBRA began in 2005, involving tribes, water users, federal agencies and others.
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Page Updated: Monday April 15, 2013 01:47 AM Pacific
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