retracts support for Klamath dam removal
Department of Interior has retracted an Obama-era support
letter for the decommissioning of four hydroelectric dams on
the lower Klamath River.
Back in 2016,
then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell penned a letter urging
the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve
the removal of the dams. But a few days ago, in a brief and
succinct letter from Secretary David Bernhardt, the
Department changed course.
letter is not a “decision document,” it does constitute a
major setback for the proposed project. Bernhardt is the
figurehead for at least four federal agencies (including
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation)
that will be highly influential in the process, should FERC
decide to move ahead with decommissioning. Those agencies
will have to perform extensive environmental and economic
impact analyses prior to the project’s advancement.
Secretary Jewell’s letter was a thumb on the scale, an
indicator to the agencies of the desired outcome of their
analyses. As of May 17, that heavily weighted thumb has
officially been removed.
But aren’t we
getting a little ahead of ourselves? FERC has not even
determined whether the corporation created to remove the
dams (the Klamath River Restoration Corporation) has the
“legal and technical capacity” to take over the operating
license from the current owner, PacifiCorp.
has asked the corporation some pretty tough questions — like
how will you shoulder the liability attached to this, and
could you please re-analyze your cost estimate — which seems
a little low? So far, these questions have remained largely
The truth is,
the environmental and economic havoc this project could
unleash poses costs and risks that have never been fully
analyzed or addressed.
County, home to three of the four dams, has made extensive
comments regarding the extreme damage that could result from
this, the largest dam decommissioning in history.
PacifiCorp, one of the most important signatories to the
amended Klamath Hydroelectric Facilities Agreement,
published comments similar to the county’s, stating that
decommissioning is something the company “is unwilling to
undertake because of the substantial risks and uncertain
What are those
risks? Flooding was a significant problem prior to the dams.
The 100-year flood plain after decommissioning will
undoubtedly encroach on homes, and property values will
of Copco, nestled along the shores of Copco Lake, will
become a ghost town once the lake disappears. Residents’
wells are at risk of drying up, and bank instability could
cause houses to slough into the now-dry reservoir pit.
No longer will
water from the lake be there to save the community from
wildfires—which has happened twice in the past few years.
30-million cubic feet of sediment will be released into the
river upon decommissioning, and as Siskiyou County and
PacifiCorp have pointed out, the corporation’s conclusions
on sediment transport down-river have been “highly
simplified opinions” that are not supported by analysis.
will likely result in long-term suspended sediment that will
harm fish. And according to a government analysis from 2012,
releasing millions of tons of contaminated sediment into the
river will likely kill significant aquatic life for a period
of at least two years. What could this mean for salmon, and
the habitat they utilize along the Klamath River — which is
the purported catalyst for decommissioning?
And how does
decommissioning address water quality issues that begin well
above the dams? The upper stretches of the Klamath are
naturally high in nitrogen and phosphorus, and the dams in
fact act as filters for those natural pollutants, as well as
for non-natural pollutants.
decommissioning fails to provide more and better water for
salmon, regulators will undoubtedly demand water from
farmers and ranchers in the Upper Basin and on tributaries
to the Klamath.
And let’s not
forget the “protected” Lost River and short nose suckers,
two species that will lose critical habitat and two entire
populations in the John Boyle and Copco reservoirs.
These are the
same endangered suckers that stakeholders have been
struggling to save, that Tribes are in fear of losing
forever, and that have been dramatically impacting the
livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.
acknowledges the fact that there are water quality and
quantity problems that need to be solved, and continues to
work hard to resolve these issues for everyone in the
the dams, however, does not address the real problems, and
poses great risk to the ecological and economic viability of
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