Sacramento Bee, 10/9/17 by
After the Obama administration
helped broker a deal last year to tear down four
dams straddling the California-Oregon border,
practically everyone involved figured President
Donald Trump would undermine it. They assumed
Trump would side with conservative activists and
Republican congressmen who thwarted an earlier
version of the same agreement in 2015.
Those assumptions are proving
The Trump administration’s point
person on the Klamath River says the federal
government isn’t going to stand in the way of
bringing the dams down by 2020, in what would be
the largest dam-removal project in American
“We do not intend to intervene
materially in any way in this process,” said
Alan Mikkelsen, acting commissioner of the U.S.
Bureau of Reclamation, in an interview last week
with The Sacramento Bee.
The fight over the Klamath River
is one of country’s fiercest, longest-running
water wars. Since 2001, it has pitted
California’s largest Indian tribes,
environmentalists and the salmon-fishing
industry against influential farmers and
ranchers in Southern Oregon and Northeastern
California. Mikkelsen said he’d like to broker a
wide-ranging water-sharing agreement that goes
beyond dam removal.
“The only way to go forward with
this is to ultimately have all the people in the
(Klamath) Basin come together to decide what
their future is going to look like,” he said.
Dam removal advocates say
Mikkelsen’s remarks are a good sign – and not
what they expected from Trump’s people.
“So far, I have to say the
administration’s Klamath team is committed to
restoring the fishery and brokering some sort of
water-sharing agreement between the fisheries’
interests and irrigation interests,” said Craig
Tucker, who advocates for dam removal on behalf
of the Karuk Tribe. Its members have been
fighting for nearly 20 years to demolish the
dams in the hopes that doing so will restore the
historic salmon runs the tribe has relied on for
Conversely, dam-removal opponents
see Mikkelsen’s statements as a stab in the
back. They thought the Trump administration,
which has clashed with environmental groups over
extracting energy from the environment, would
fight for the hydroelectric power the dams
“It seems to be counterintuitive
to what the administration stands for,” said
Michael Kobseff, a Siskiyou County supervisor.
Siskiyou County, on California’s
northern border, is where three of the four dams
are located. Residents widely oppose dam
removal, fearing a loss of electricity and a
reduction in property values for homes on some
of the reservoirs formed by the dams.
They also worry that dam removal
would make water quality in the river worse –
all fears dam removal proponents say are
The dispute over how to share the
Klamath has been playing out since the
presidency of George W. Bush. Just last month, a
federal judge ruled against Klamath Basin
farmers, in a case that sought to have the U.S.
government pay them millions of dollars for
taking water away from their farms 16 years
The judge ruled that Indian
tribes along the Klamath that had sought more
water for fish have senior water rights, so no
payment was necessary.
The case stems from the spring of
2001, when federal water regulators shut off the
water to Klamath Basin farms in Southern Oregon
and near Tulelake in Northeastern California
amid concerns that farmers pulling water from
the watershed would kill coho salmon and two
other endangered fish species.
In response, nearly 10,000
farmers and their allies rallied in “bucket
brigade” protests. At one point, a small group
of activists took a blowtorch and saw to a
closed irrigation-canal head gate.
The next year, the Bush
administration reversed course and let farmers
irrigate. Tribes, environmental groups and
fishing associations were outraged, in turn,
when tens of thousands of migrating salmon died
in the low flows that followed the water
In 2004, with lawsuits pending,
the various factions began talks. They
eventually hashed out a series of settlements to
bring the dams down – a victory for
environmentalists, anglers and the
salmon-dependent tribes living in impoverished
rural communities along the Klamath. They say
the dams block salmon and other migratory fish
from 400 miles of habitat, reduce water quality
and contribute to the low flows that kill fish.
They blame the dams for significantly
contributing to the closure of this year’s
salmon fishing season on the Klamath due to
historically low numbers of fish coming back to
the river to spawn.
Klamath Basin farmers agreed to
take less water in exchange for more
reliability, with guaranteed amounts set each
year. The farmers are upstream of the dams and
receive none of the water stored in them. The
dams’ sole function is power generation.
Meanwhile, a wildlife refuge complex, an annual
stopover for millions of migrating birds, was
due to get almost as much water as the farmers.
The dams’ owner, Portland-based
PacifiCorp, got something, too: By giving up a
series of aging dams that supplies just a sliver
of the utility’s electricity needs, it avoided
having to pay an estimated $400 million in
facility upgrades needed to get them
The settlements all died in 2015,
however, after congressional Republicans refused
to authorize the millions of dollars needed to
decommission the dams.
“Tearing down four perfectly good
hydroelectric dams when we can’t guarantee
enough electricity to keep your refrigerator
running this summer is lunacy,” Rep. Tom
McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said at the time.
McClintock described the dam-removal agreements
as a “greens-gone-wild episode.”
The next year, the Obama
administration worked with Gov. Jerry Brown, his
Oregon counterpart, tribal governments, fishing
groups and PacifiCorp to make a new deal that
focuses solely on dam removal and doesn’t
require congressional approval. No federal tax
dollars are involved; PacifiCorp ratepayers in
both states are contributing surcharges, and
California has committed up to $250 million,
toward the costs of removing the dams.
The dams’ removal wouldn’t
eliminate all of the controversies surrounding
the Klamath. Mikkelsen said he hopes to
resurrect the water-sharing agreements
envisioned in the original settlements – now
that the dam-removal component is being handled
Mikkelsen, who is from Montana,
was appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
He chaired Zinke’s congressional campaign. Prior
to that, Mikkelsen was chief of staff for former
Republican Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg.
Mikkelsen once worked as a fishing guide, and at
one point ran a consulting firm that mediated
disputes between Native American tribes and
water users in Montana.
Since taking the job this spring,
Mikkelsen said he has been trying to learn all
he can about the Klamath watershed. He is
planning his third trip to the area this week.
This summer, he drove the windy
length of the river from the mouth in foggy Del
Norte County to the Oregon border. He said he
was struck by how few people were using the
Klamath in the heart of the summer, at a time
when other similarly rugged rivers across the
U.S. would be packed with fishermen, campers and
“I couldn’t believe that there
was nobody there utilizing an area that I found
frankly to be very striking and very beautiful,”
He said something needs to be
done to bring the river back to life, a task
that will require compromises in a political
environment where no one wants to give an inch.
He said it’s important for everyone to
understand the “future is not going to look like
the past,” and that means pushing back against
the uncompromising politics of “you are either
with me all the way or you are against me all