Copco No. 1, a dam built between 1911 and 1918, is on
the list for removal if a Klamath restoration plan
moves forward. - Tam Moore For the Capital Press
Klamath-area farmer Tom Mallams showed lawmakers last
week this stack of petitions opposing a plan to remove
four Klamath River dams. - Mitch Lies/Capital Press
Klamath dams debate roars on
Legislators weigh costs of removing dams, doing nothing
For several weeks now, farmer Tom Mallams has been carting
around the Oregon Capitol a 1-foot-thick bundle of petitions
signed by 1,850 Klamath area residents opposed to a plan to
remove four Klamath River dams.
The bundle, he said, is heavy and cumbersome. But it is the
best way he knows to show lawmakers the considerable
opposition to the dam-removal plan.
The plan, called the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, was
hammered out over a four-year period by a diverse group of
stakeholders, including farmers, ranchers, tribes,
conservation groups, fishermen, federal agencies and
PacifiCorp, which owns the dams and uses them to generate
Individual stakeholders, according to the group, all
compromised in coming to terms on what they say is the best
solution to a controversy that spans decades.
The controversy boiled over in 2001 when the federal
government ordered water masters to shut off the flow of
Klamath River water to irrigation canals. The shut-off cost
Klamath Basin farmers millions of dollars in lost crops.
In addition to removing the four dams, the restoration plan
calls for farmers in the Klamath Basin irrigation project to
leave in-stream up to 100,000 acre feet of water in dry years
- or nearly one-third of their water allocation claims - in
exchange for water-delivery assurances.
Farmers outside the project are being asked to leave up to
30,000 acre feet of water in-stream for fish.
The loss of irrigation supplies is painful, said Greg
Addington, head of the Klamath Water Users Association. But,
Addington said, to be assured of some water is better than
risking another complete shut-off.
Under the plan, PacifiCorp ratepayers would pay $200 million
toward the cost of removing the dams. California lawmakers are
preparing a $250 million bond measure to put before voters to
provide backup if the costs exceed $200 million.
Oregon ratepayers, which comprise about 90 percent of
PacifiCorp's approximately 600,000 customers, would pony up
$180 million of the $200 million ratepayer fund.
The plan calls for PacifiCorp to start removing the dams in
2020. The projected completion date is 2025.
The stakeholders, one and all, call the plan a major
But Mallams and others disagree.
In hearings before legislative committees on a bill that would
set the plan in motion by capping Oregon ratepayers'
responsibility at $180 million, they argue the potential loss
of irrigation water could devastate their ability to raise
And, they say, removing the dams could cost PacifiCorp
ratepayers - and possibly Oregon taxpayers - billions of
dollars in unforeseen costs.
The opponents, who claim they were shut out of the stakeholder
negotiations - a contention other stakeholders deny - say the
$450 million top figure of dam-removal costs falls woefully
short. As evidence, they point to two studies - one
commissioned by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
showing costs could reach $4.5 billion and another showing
costs peaking in the $840 million range.
Who, they wonder, will get stuck paying those added costs?
Supporters counter that so-called "off-ramps" are built into
the plan. If additional studies show costs will exceed the
$450 million top figure, they say federal agencies and others
will rethink the plan. Further muting overrun concerns, they
say, the Oregon Public Utilities Commission must sign off on
rate increases, providing another off-ramp.
The restoration plan's genesis can be traced to two events:
the water shutoff in 2001, which showed Klamath Basin farmers
what can happen if they do nothing to protect endangered
salmon runs, and the pending expiration of PacifiCorp's
federal license to operate the dams. As part of relicensing
provisions, PacifiCorp has been ordered to install fish
ladders and conduct other extensive and expensive improvements
to the structures, which are 50 years or more old.
A FERC study estimates the expense of installing fish ladders
at $350 million.
Also on the table is a state law requiring utilities to
generate 25 percent of the state's power from renewable
resources by 2025. Removing the dams and replacing the lost
power with renewable energy resources will help PacifiCorp
meet those requirements, company officials said.
Also on the plus side, dam removal is expected to enhance fish
runs, opening traditional spawning grounds now off-limits to
endangered salmon - a contention Mallams and others dispute.
"This offers us the surest and quickest ways of restoring fish
runs," said Jeff Mitchell, tribal council member for the
Klamath Tribes. "We've gone without salmon now for decades."
The biggest unknown in the dam-removal cost is the toxicity of
sediment that has built up behind the four dams. Particularly
worrisome is the amount of asbestos, which was used
extensively in dam construction.
Preliminary studies show the sediment contains only minor
levels of toxicity. But those studies, even proponents admit,
are cursory. Comprehensive studies are planned before steps
are taken to remove the dams.
If the sediment is found to be highly toxic, project backers
say the secretary of the federal Department of the Interior
could put a halt to the plan in 2012, when the department is
projected to rule on whether to go forward.
At that point, money collected from ratepayers in a surcharge
pot called for in Senate Bill 76 would either be reimbursed or
put toward a beneficial use. For example, it could go toward
paying for fish ladders and other structural improvements
necessary to relicense the dams.
But opponents say the opt-outs don't provide sufficient
protection against officials pushing the plan forward even if
dam removal costs skyrocket.
Also, they say, at some point in the dam decommissioning
process it will be too late to turn back - regardless of the
level of toxicity found in the sediment.
Opponents also question whether PacifiCorp can replace the
lost power. If nothing else, they argue, lawmakers should wait
for further studies before passing any bill that sets the plan
"It is irresponsible for us to render a decision on SB76 at
this time," Rep. Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls, said in
testimony before a House committee last week.
Garrard also told committee members the majority of people in
his district oppose dam removal.
"I ask you to please wait until we know if dam removal is the
right thing to do," he said.
Plan proponents, meanwhile, say it is critical to move forward
now with Senate Bill 76. By amortizing the cost to ratepayers
over 10 years, they say, it will add only between $1.50 and
$1.80 a month to the average electric customer's bill.
Waiting to implement the surcharge, they say, puts ratepayers
at risk for a dramatic rate increase at some future date.
"This bill is needed now, not only to demonstrate Oregon's
commitment to the (restoration) agreement, but to soften the
impact on ratepayers." said Mike Carrier, natural resources
policy advisor for Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
But adopting SB76, opponents argue, sets in motion a slippery
slope they fear could be far more costly for ratepayers in the