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Klamath dam plan generates doubts

January 22, 2008 by Michelle Ma, Triplicate 

Last week, negotiators representing 26 interest groups released a Klamath Basin restoration proposal that was proclaimed by many as monumental.

PacifiCorp's four dams on the river, the proposal states, must be removed if this settlement plan is to be implemented.

But after stakeholders gathered in confidential meetings for more than two years to produce the draft plan, doubts have surfaced about its effectiveness.

For instance, the roughly $1 billion plan is contingent upon Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp agreeing to pull its dams from the river, but the power company hasn't agreed to anything of the sort.

Critics question whether it would adequately restore salmon habitat.

Also, the leaders of some counties involved with the talks know their constituents won't support dam removal, which is the key element to the plan going forward.

To add to the circulating doubts, some wonder why more groups with ties to the Klamath Basin weren't present at the talks, including Del Norte County officials.

"Since that river goes into the ocean in Del Norte County, we should be an equal player amongst all of that," said former Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn.

Humboldt, Klamath and Siskiyou counties all took part in the negotiations, but Del Norte County wasn't at the table.

Current and former Del Norte County supervisors said they never received an invitation.

But if Del Norte County's leaders do want to join the settlement agreement, it might not be too late, said Greg Addington, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association and participant in the settlement talks.

"I don't think it's out of the question that someone else could sign on and be another party in the settlement," Addington said.

Members of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors heard about settlement talks for the first time about six months ago when they met to discuss other issues with the Yurok Tribe, said Supervisor David Finigan, whose district includes Klamath.

"(The Yurok Tribe) shared some information and said they'd ask if we could be added to the table," Finigan said. "But we didn't even know there was a table at that time."

The three counties that did participate in the talks are all recognized in the draft settlement as possibly being impacted by dam removal. Siskiyou County is slated to receive $20 million to make up for lost tax revenues if PacifiCorp's dams are removed, and Klamath County would receive $3.2 million to compensate for lost property taxes.

Humboldt County isn't listed in the draft document to receive any compensation before the plan is implemented, but the county could be re-evaluated by state officials if dam removal causes fishing areas to close or damages county infrastructure, the draft document states.

Confidential talks begin

The original settlement group formed after PacifiCorp initiated the talks about three years ago when the power company applied for federal relicensing of its Klamath Hydroelectric Project to operate for another 30-50 years.

Negotiations are still ongoing with the power company over the fate of its four dams.

It's not uncommon for settlement talks to start when a company seeks to relicense, Addington said. But what was unique about this process, he said, was that other issues rose to the forefront of the discussions, such as water allocation. Negotiators representing Indian tribes, irrigators, environmental groups, and federal and state agencies all weighed in with PacifiCorp during the early meetings.

When it appeared there was more to discuss than just the dams, Addington said, the parties split off into two separate groups—one that included PacifiCorp, and another that brought together more than 25 basin-wide stakeholders.

In those early meetings, it appeared the parties already represented a diverse group, Addington said. At that point, no invitations were issued, though the group didn't intend to exclude anyone, he added.

Local input in other talks

Del Norte County did take part in a separate, federally funded task force that met for 20 years and discussed fisheries restoration and management in the Klamath Basin. That group, not unlike the current group of 26 stakeholders, brought together representatives from different interest groups throughout the basin.

The task force disbanded in 2006 after its funding expired.

Former Del Norte County Supervisor Blackburn served on the task force for eight years until it ended.

Blackburn said he remembers some talk of groups splitting off for separate discussions, but it didn't sound like anything official.

The former supervisor said when groups have formed in the past—especially with the importance of this settlement group—formal letters of invitation usually are sent out. Del Norte County never received any notice, Blackburn said.

"I'm pretty sure we were never asked to be part of that," Blackburn said. "I can honestly say I don't remember them ever putting their hand out and saying, welcome aboard."

Unknown outcome

For counties involved with the settlement, representatives who took part in the confidential talks will brief their boards of supervisors and county residents. After a public comment period, county supervisors will decide whether to sign the final settlement agreement.

Since the draft settlement was released last week, some groups' constituents are already unhappy with its contents.

Siskiyou County supervisors have traditionally been opposed to dam removal, said Siskiyou County Counsel Frank DeMarco, who has participated in the negotiating talks since spring of 2005.

DeMarco wouldn't speak for the county's board of supervisors, but he did say that people are concerned that dam removal would upset the way of life for many county residents. Three of the hydroelectric dams that could come out are in Siskiyou County, and one is in Klamath County, Ore.

Some Siskiyou County residents enjoy living along the dams' reservoirs, and their removal might be disruptive, DeMarco said.

The county will conduct a series of public meetings to allow people to weigh in on the draft document.

"If you have a deal about the dams coming out, I can honestly tell you our people wouldn't be happy with that," DeMarco said. "I'm not happy with the settlement. I don't feel comfortable with this document."

Siskiyou had to ask to be part of the settlement group, DeMarco said. He said it was a "rigorous" process to get to the table.

"I had to be aggressive," DeMarco said. "Siskiyou County is ground zero for dam removal."

Klamath County Commissioner John Elliott said county residents will have a lot of questions and discussion over the draft settlement. Elliott, who participated in the confidential talks, said he thought there would have to be some changes to the document, or it won't be signed by everyone.

"Overall, I think the document is a good first step," Elliott said. "Getting these groups from the mouth to the headwaters involved in this dialogue has been far more valuable to me—and I think to them—than the document actually is."

The draft settlement is contingent upon PacifiCorp removing its dams, but the agreement is not dependent on all 26 stakeholders signing on, Addington said.

The aim is to finalize both this draft settlement and an agreement with PacifiCorp by February, but given the vast diversity of the 26 groups involved, it might not be possible for all groups to agree, Addington said.

"(We are) striving for consensus and that was our objective, but if people can't get there at the end of the day, we understand," Addington said.

Reach Michelle Ma at mma@triplicate.com.

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