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Editorial: Removing dams costly, unwarranted

March 5, 2009 by Andy Martin, Editor, Wallowa County Chieftain editor@wallowa.com

Hundred of miles from Wallowa County, across the border into Northern California, Pacific Power operates three dams on the Klamath River. Those dams, along with another just north of the border near Klamath Falls, produce enough electricity to power 70,000 homes.
 
Under pressure from environmental groups, tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Power has reached an agreement to tear the dams out, thanks in part to the states of Oregon and California paying a big chunk of the cost, and releasing the power company from much of the liability associated with the dams.
 
Pacific Power fought to continue operating the dams, but after the Fish and Wildlife Service indicated it would require fish ladders that could top $1 billion as part if its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicense, saw removing the dams would be a cheaper alternative.
 
Now Pacific Power ratepayers, including those in Wallowa County, are being thrown under the bus, being forced to pay for the removal of dams that not only produce clean, affordable electricity, but also provide water storage in drought-stricken Southern Oregon and Northern California. Oregon's Senate voted late last month to raise power bills to pay for the dam removal.. Oregon ratepayers will be responsible for $180 million, while California power customers will have to pay $20 million. The bill passed mostly on party line votes, with Republicans opposed, except for one, Sen. Jason Atkinson of Central Point. Sen. Dave Nelson, R-Pendleton, and Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, have been vocal in their opposition to dam removal. So has Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner.
 
Opponents of the dams blame them for poor salmon returns in the river. In reality, salmon populations throughout the West Coast have been struggling. Even rivers without dams experienced horrible fall Chinook returns last year. The Klamath has actually been a bright spot. This year, 85,000 salmon are expected to return to the river, thanks in part to the hatchery at the base of Iron Gate Dam that the power company provides 80 percent of the funding. You can bet Pacific Power won't be paying for the annual release of 900,000 salmon smolts and 5.1 million fingerlings once its dams are torn down. These fish fuel ocean commercial and sport salmon fisheries off the Oregon and California coasts.
 
Many Klamath Basin farmers have endorsed the dam removal, after decades of legal battles with environmental groups and tribes opposed to irrigation. As part of a non-binding agreement, farmers would have supposedly guaranteed water allotments.
 
Not all Klamath farmers, however, support dam removal. Nearly 2,000 Klamath County landowners signed a petition opposing their removal. The residents in Siskiyou County, Calif., also have opposed the removal of the dams in their backyard, citing flood control, clean energy, recreation, property values along the lakes created by the dams, and environmental concerns, including fears of tons of sediment stacked up behind the dams.
 
More than two dozen government agencies, local governments, tribes and environmental groups created the agreement to tear down the dams, but the California county where the dams are located was not invited, presumably because it was adamant in its opposition to dam removal.
 
Sen. Whitsett, in opposing the dam removal and the bill just passed by the Oregon Senate, warns Oregon ratepayers could be responsible for another $3.9 billion if tearing down the dams runs into cost overruns and environmental liabilities, such as hauling away half a million truckloads of sediment.
 
If restoring salmon populations to historic levels was as simple as raising Pacific Power rate customers' power bills $1.50 a month for 10 years, we'd be in favor. But the costs could be a lot higher. There is certainly no guarantee removing the Klamath dams will bring back millions of salmon. It also doesn't make any sense to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in this or any economy to remove a system that produces clean energy, especially when a more costly, less green replacement will be required. And don't think having farmers agree to support dam removal will prevent environmental groups from suing them over water. There are many more groups opposed to irrigation than the handful involved in the "non-binding" agreement with the farmers trading off dam removal for so-called guaranteed water deliveries.
 

Copyright 2009, Wallowa County Chieftain.
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