Water wars in the arid western US are nothing new, but the rules of engagement have changed. The Klamath River basin on the California-Oregon border has been the stage for a decades-long epic battle between farmers, fisherman, government agencies, utilities, and tribes with treaty rights to dwindling salmon populations. More than 26 diverse groups have worked together to negotiate solutions to the most pressing problems the river faces, and are now close to a breakthrough that may breathe new life into the struggling river and its people.
The stakeholders’ group unveiled its Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement on January 15. The agreement is designed to provide irrigation for upriver farmers, ensure adequate flows for the health of the river and restoration of fish populations, and guarantee tribal fishing rights.
At the heart of the matter, and the primary reason the stakeholder negotiations have been so protracted, are four century-old dams on the Klamath that many contend must come down to restore the river and its fisheries. The dams are responsible not just for blocking and killing fish, but also for outbreaks of toxic algae at levels thousands of times greater than what is considered safe for human health. Dangerous to touch and poisonous when ingested, the algae are known liver toxins implicated in tumor growth and organ failure. The off-gassing from this algae releases methane, which adds to global warming.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has stated that dam removal will save $210 million for ratepayers using the dams’ electricity. “Replacing the dams’ power with real green energy was factored into economic studies. Add this to the millions of taxpayer dollars in disaster relief for commercial fisherman that lost their livelihoods to the 2006 salmon closure, and those dams are looking expensive,” says Regina Chichizola of the Klamath Riverkeeper.
Proponents of the new restoration agreement argue that it represents a concrete step toward realizing the most ambitious dam-removal project so far in the United States, with a potential price tag of up to $1 billion over 10 years.
Unfortunately, the hard-earned deal is missing a key component. It discusses no money for dam removal and has no commitments from PacifiCorp, the dams’ owner, who left the negotiating table years ago. PacifiCorp Power is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, billionaire Warren Buffett’s company. Buffett is the world’s third richest person.
Downstream tribes long afflicted by the impacts of low flows on water quality and fisheries have declined to support the agreement until these issues are addressed.
Craig Tucker, Klamath Campaign Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe of California, and strong supporter of the agreement, acknowledges that dam removal is fundamental to any real agreement: “If there’s no dam deal, there’s no damn deal. This sentiment is uniformly shared by the tribes, conservation groups, and fishermen at the table.”
The Hoopa Valley Tribe, with its reservation located downstream on the Trinity River, was one of the parties to the long negotiation process, and was unable to accept the draft agreement because “it does nothing to remove dams from the Klamath River. And it uses the dam-removal dialogue and politicized science to support more water for Oregon irrigators at the expense of the fish.”
More than half of the projected $1 billion price tag for restoration could come from money already being spent to mitigate the impact of the dams, which provide enough electricity for about 70,000 households. Arguments remain over who should bear the $120 million cost of taking the dams down.
According to the California Energy Commission, with the money PacifiCorp would spend to modernize the Klamath River dams, the company could replace the entire project with a 170-megawatt wind plant, a 100-megawatt solar plant, or make efficiency upgrades to its distribution system.
“In short, removing the Klamath dams can be done without increasing greenhouse gas emissions or raising electric rates a single penny,” says Rebecca Wodder of American Rivers.
PacifiCorp Power disputes these estimates. Paul Vogel, a spokesman for the company, said, “Fulfilling everyone else’s interests doesn’t protect our customers. What we would not allow is for the cost of removal and the cost of replacement power to be totally borne by our customers.”
Those who want the dams taken down have a few more aces to play. Klamath Riverkeeper, the Karuk Tribe and Friends of the River are now taking the issue directly to ratepayers through direct mailers and open houses to explain how dam removal and replacement power is cheaper then relicensing. This ratepayers campaign could put pressure on the Public Utility Commission to deny the rate hike as part of the dams’ relicensing process. According to Tucker, “It is the PUC’s job as regulator to ensure that the power company chooses the least cost option in a dam relicensing or else shareholders should bear the cost themselves.” In this case, the biggest shareholder is Warren Buffett.
The state of California is also not likely to give PacifiCorp the Clean Water certification needed to operate the dams. “We also have several liability lawsuits on the toxic algae and fisheries issues on the Klamath that, if successful, will show that PacifiCorp is liable for the pollution that they are creating, and its impacts to fish,” says Chichizola.
Meanwhile, the Tribes, farmers, fishermen and conservationists in the Klamath Basin will continue to negotiate with PacifiCorp and hope for a swift resolution that clears the path for restoration of this beleaguered and battle-worn river basin.