Dam issue jams Klamath settlement
company process independent of stakeholders' agreement
Perkowski, Capital Press 5/30/08
of a settlement agreement between irrigators and tribes in the
Klamath basin is up in the air as the prospect of dam removal,
seen as key to the deal, remains foggy.
Five months after irrigators and tribes struck an agreement
that would end legal disputes over water rights between the
groups, the deal hasn't moved forward, largely because four
hydroelectric dams along the Klamath river appear likely to
remain intact for the foreseeable future.
PacifiCorp, the electric utility that owns the dams, isn't
willing to remove the dams unless the federal government
absolves the company's rate-payers of liability if anything
goes wrong and reimburses them for higher rates.
"They need to cover our customers' risks and costs," said Art
Sasse, spokesman for the company.
Sasse said the perception that PacifiCorp is holding up the
settlement is untrue, since the utility's dam relicensing
process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is
independent of the agreement hammered out by tribes,
irrigators, federal agencies and conservation groups.
"That's not our deal," he said.
PacifiCorp will abide by the relicensing requirements, which
may or may not involve dam removal, he said. Typically, the
relicensing process lasts about 10 to 15 years, and the
company applied for a new license for the Klamath
Hydroelectric Project in 2004, Sasse said.
"We're talking years down the road" before a final decision is
made, he said.
Of the last six hydroelectric projects that PacifiCorp had
applied to relicense, half were decommissioned, Sasse said.
Fish ladders were installed at the remaining projects, Sasse
No matter how persuasive settlement stakeholders are, dam
removal will ultimately hinge on the impact to PacifiCorp's
bottom line, said Greg Addington, executive director of the
Klamath Water Users Association.
"It's going to have to be a business decision," he said.
The settlement stakeholders will continue pressing for dam
removal, but even if the dams remain in place, Addington said,
elements of the agreement could remain viable.
Before the settlement, irrigators, tribes and conservationists
were usually at each others' throats in court, he said. Their
newly forged coalition is unlikely to break up, regardless of
the dams' fate, Addington said.
"If this thing goes away, we're not just going to stop talking
to each other," he said.
Even from the financial perspective, though, PacifiCorp may
come around to the settlement stakeholders' point of view,
said Regina Chichizola, spokeswoman for the Klamath
The environmental group has worked closely with several
Klamath-area tribes to advocate for dam removal.
"It seems like the economic arguments are very much on the
side of dam removal," she said, pointing to a 2006 California
Energy Commission study that found removal would be $80
million to $200 million cheaper than building fish ladders.
The delay in the settlement's implementation, however, may
have negative repercussions even if the dams are
Since early 2007, the number of similar water rights'
settlements between irrigators and tribes has grown from two
to 13, said Dan Keppen, executive director of the Family Farm
Most of these settlements also ask the government to fund
restoration programs, he said. That means the $985 million
Klamath settlement would need to stand in a long queue for
money, Keppen said.
"They're going to be competing with other settlements," he
said. "Settlements are starting to pop up all over the West.
... More and more, it's becoming accepted that this is how
(water) disputes are settled."
Apart from these challenges, the settlement has also drawn the
ire of Siskiyou County, Calif., which is opposed to dam
That eventuality would be especially distressing if PacifiCorp
doesn't have to bear responsibility for negative effects, said
Marcia Armstrong, a district supervisor with the county.
"You could have massive destruction downstream," she said.
The county is worried that carcinogens in the 20 million
metric tons of sediment behind the four dams would threaten
fish, wildlife and people who use the Klamath River, she said.
"It's like having a poison river running through your
community," she said.
Created by log transport on the river, the dioxins in the
sediment are "bioaccumulative," meaning they travel up the
food chain, Armstrong said. The effect of dam removal on
sediment buildup simply isn't well understood, she said.
"This would be the largest dam removal project in the U.S.,
and the studies haven't been done," said Armstrong. "Not all
would go downstream, but there hasn't been a study on how it
would move downstream. We think it's premature."
The settlement agreement has also met with disapproval from
the Hoopa Valley tribe, which believes the deal makes
irrigation a higher priority than fish protection.
The Klamath Off-Project Water Users also oppose the terms of
the settlement, said Edward Bartell, a grower and president of
"We see it as directly targeting off-project interests," he
While the deal contains assurances for irrigators within the
Klamath Project, it doesn't offer similar protection for
off-project water use, Bartell said. Also, the agreement
doesn't allocate enough money for electricity generation to
keep power rates low, he said.
Contrary to its initial purpose, the settlement did not bring
off-project interests into consideration, Bartell said. "They
decided to divide up their chips rather than abide by their
agreements with us."
Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: