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The Winners, the Losers, and the Landscape That Might Emerge If the Klamath River Dams Disappear

Francisco L. Nodarse
Aug 19 2020

Taking down four dams in Oregon and California would be a coup for advocates of dam removal. It could also mark the moment when their movement rediscovers a more realistic goal: bringing restoration into balance with human needs.

The Upper Klamath River in Southern Oregon, photographed in June 2016

The Upper Klamath River in Southern Oregon, photographed in June 2016   Bob Wick/ Bureau of Land Management via Flickr

Update, November 18, 2020

A new agreement between PacifiCorp, the states of Oregon and California, and the Yurok and Karuk tribes may overcome the final, unexpected obstacle to the legal framework for removing four aging dams on the Klamath River. Nearly two decades of work by the tribes, environmentalists culminated by enlisting both the utility and the two states to give more financial support for the massive project to restore the river.
 
In July, doubts were raised about earlier plans to transfer ownership from PacifiCorp to a new entity, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, to manage their removal after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that PacifiCorp needed to remain liable for costs related to the dams’ removal. To this end, FERC ruled that only a partial transfer of the license to operate the dams could take place, leaving PacifiCorp potentially liable for tends of millions of dollars in unexpected costs.
 
Now, the revision of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement would transfer the license to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation and to the two states of California and Oregon, ensuring that the new owners would have the financial wherewithal to cover new costs. PacifiCorp’s basic requirement was to be free of future liability for the project, and the groups working to pull down the dams believe that FERC will accept the agreement.
 
Funds to pay for the dams’ removal will include $200 million from PacifiCorp, raised from ratepayers, and $250 million from California bonds originally designated to pay for water projects. A press release issued by the signatories of the agreement said, “Adding the states as co-licensees provides assurances the project will have sufficient financial backing...”

By Francisco L. Nodarse

The dams’ formal name is the Lower Klamath Hydroelectric Project, but locals call them the Klamath dams -- four aging structures straddling the California-Oregon border. By any name, they have been a rallying point for environmentalists, Native groups, and conservation-minded legislators who see the dams’ elimination as a landmark for the environmental restoration movement. It would be the largest project of its kind in the United States.

The Klamath complex consists of four hydroelectric dams, ranging from 38 to 173 feet in height. They were built between 1922 and 1964 to limit flooding and generate hydroelectric power, and still provide electricity to about 70,000 people. In the early 2000s, facing steep renovation costs to bring the dams up to federal code, their operator, PacifiCorp, announced that it would abandon the relicensing process and pursue removal instead.

Such an effort is, in many ways, without precedent: removing the dams would involve the draw-down of three reservoirs and the release of their built-up sediment over several years, as well as the removal of over a million cubic yards of earth and ten thousand tons of concrete and metal from the structures themselves.

As operators like PacifiCorp begin to embrace dam removal, it is becoming, if not commonplace, at least less remarkable. Hundreds of dams around the country are gone, and anti-dam efforts have accelerated. Major dam removals, like those on Washington’s White Salmon and Elwha Rivers in 2011 and 2014, respectively, proved that large-scale removal is feasible. They are also providing evidence of ecosystem recovery.

The Klamath debate is fueled by predictable arguments: over rising operation costs and diminishing returns, fears that releasing built-up silt will mar the waterway for both people and native salmon, the loss of over 150 megawatts of electricity generation and conflicting assertions of water rights.

But there is a real, if subtle change in the discussion. This may be the moment when opponents of the dams abandon the vision of pure restoration of the river.

PacifiCorp’s pro-removal stance tracks both shifting public opinion and economic realities: an early round of negotiations with government officials promised limited liability and a $250 million funding package for removal that made relicensing’s estimated $400 million cost nearly twice as expensive as removal. PacifiCorp, which has managed the dams since 1961, is now on the hook for just $200 million.

The current push to eliminate the dams began in the early 2000’s during relicensing by PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of the investor Warren Buffett’s holdings group. That moment coincided with a major water-rights conflict between tribes and agricultural groups.

Two Hundred Miles From the Ocean, a Gauntlet of Dams

The Klamath River Hydroelectric Project consists of four dams that were built between 1922 and 1964 to provide flood control and hydroelectric power. Their operator, PacifiCorp, has opted not to pursue a costly relicensing process that would keep them operating. While they continue to generate electricity and store water in three reservoirs, they have extremely poor accommodations for fish passage.

Graphic: Map of the Klamath River and dams


Dams of the Klamath River Hydroelectric Project


Graphic: Dams of the Klamath River Hydroelectric Project.

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; ESRI Satellite Imagery; Natural Earth Data; USGS National Hydrography Dataset; NASA Elevation Data;

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West


For Indigenous Peoples, a Chance to Restore Ancestral Fish Runs

A ranch outside Chiloquin, Oregon, on the northeast shore of Upper Klamath Lake.

Yurok, Karuk and Hupa citizens demonstrated in favor of removing the Klamath Dams at the headquarters of Pacificorp in Portland in September 2008 (left and right), and of the Berkshire Hathaway company in Omaha in May 2007 (center).   Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe

The Klamath debate is also overshadowed by the reality that the fish and the land once belonged to indigenous people who were dispossessed, and want a return of some small semblance of their ancestors’ life rhythms.

Even though a recent federal agency ruling may complicate the economics of removing the dams entirely, or breaching them — allowing water passage — they will likely be decommissioned soon. Still, the fight over the Klamath may help reshape environmentalists’ goals as they chip away at the legacy of engineers who sought to tame devastating floods and harness the rivers’ energy.

The longest-standing claims on the river are most clearly articulated by Frankie Myers, vice chair of the Yurok tribe. The Yuroks, along with the Karuk and Hoopa tribes, were forced to move to a reservation in the lower Klamath basin in the mid-1800s. Over the last century, they watched dams go up and the salmon, blocked from their spawning areas, disappear. “My grandparents and my parents were activists on the river here fighting for land and fishing rights,” Myers explained.

In 2002, a massive salmon die-off killed tens of thousands of Chinook salmon and ignited the modern conflict. In recent years, a century after salmon runs sometimes reached a million fish, the Pacific Fishery Management Council estimates the Klamath runs have set consecutive record lows for returning adult salmon; about 10,000 adults now spawn annually.

“The Klamath runs were the largest in California outside of the Central Valley,” said Peter Moyle, a fish biologist and professor emeritus at the University of California-Davis. “Archaeological remains show that salmon would swim all the way up to Oregon,” where they would spawn in cooler spring-fed water.

The dams – John C. Boyle, Iron Gate, and Copco No.1 and 2 – were built over a 40-year period. Now rising temperatures, algal blooms, and parasitic outbreaks, along with periodic droughts, have combined to create a crisis. ”Within 25-30 years,” Moyle said, “it’s reasonable to expect that most of the main stream Klamath will not be suitable to salmonids for most of the late summer.”

Is a Return to a Pristine Past Possible? What Would a Future Klamath look like?

Algae

Algae buildup on the J.C. Boyle Reservoir is visible from aerial imagery in Google Maps.   Google Maps

What began as a familiar debate between advocates of the benefits of taming the river and advocates of letting it run free is evolving. The new narrative of some dam opponents: removal should not aim to restore the Klamath of old, but to nurture the watershed while taking both human and environmental needs into account.

Preserving remnants of the old runs won’t restore the Klamath to its once-abundant past. “The magnitude of the human footprint has become so large it’s unimaginable to have a world without us,” said Stephen Pyne, emeritus professor at Arizona State University. “You make the arbitrary decision to ‘restore’ it to some point” in time, he said. “But what are we restoring it to? The Pleistocene? Restoration should not be the object.” His question is: “What can we learn from the past that might inform what we want to do next?” Removing the dams is not a guarantee of future salmon abundance, but, as Moyle conceded, “It’s the only real option we have.”

Skeptical of Prospects for Fish Survival, Water Users Rebel Against Removal Plans

A ranch outside Chiloquin, Oregon, on the northeast shore of Upper Klamath Lake.

A ranch outside Chiloquin, Oregon, on the northeast shore of Upper Klamath Lake.   Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Saving one part of the watershed’s history, local residents argue, means losing another part. Theirs. For Rex Cozzalio, a fourth-generation landowner on the Klamath, efforts to restore the river ignore his family’s way of life. For years, Cozzalio has spoken out against removal plans, arguing that they ignore scientific realities. He and other residents believe that the Klamath, which is naturally shallow and warm, never supported the extensive fish passages that fisheries scientists describe, and would certainly be unable to if the dams come down, and built-up sediment is flushed downriver.

Richard Marshall, President of the Siskiyou County Water Users, said these concerns are often ignored. He believes tribal groups, who have been more directly involved in negotiations, "were sold a bill of goods because the original deal gave them loads of money to restore the river.” The current agreement, however, is more limited in scope, with little funding set aside for post-removal remediation.

Landowners are furious. “It’s rage,” said Loy Beardsmore, a retired teacher and local activist. “Threatening to lie down in the road.” Part of their frustration, she said, is the belief that if landowners’ worst fears come true, and water levels and property values fall while the Klamath becomes clogged with silt, they, unlike tribes, will have no legal recourse.

The fight, Marshall said, sometimes feels futile. “There’s a lot of outside funding from environmental groups and special interests that we can’t compete with. We’re a model place because we’re a large area with little population. I won’t say we’re poor, but we don’t have groups that can throw money at this.”

Residents feel that their voices ought to carry more weight. PacifiCorp’s decision, Cozzalio conceded, will always be the last word — but "the continuity and history of knowledge from generations living with the land and water give a far greater understanding and ability to make considered decisions than others, especially when the vested owner’s quality of life, future, and community are dependent upon those decisions." Ultimately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s coming decision on the transfer of dam ownership will seal the Klamath’s fate.

Environmental and Safety Regulations Skewer Aging Dams’ Economics, as Cultural Winds Shift Against Them

The Elwha Dam on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula during and after deconstruction in October 2011 and May 2012.

The Elwha Dam on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula during and after deconstruction in October 2011 and May 2012.   National Park Service

The Klamath dams, like others across the West, are slowly but surely decaying. Construction of hydroelectric facilities in North America peaked in the mid-20th century, when the Klamath’s dams began generating power. In the decades since, a lack of infrastructure investment, shifting public opinion, and new options for renewable energy have made dams cost-ineffective and, at times, unsafe, leaving utilities companies scrambling.

Jeff Bodington, a financial analyst who has served as an advisor on dozens of dam removal projects said, “From an electric power value perspective, the new requirements to relicense can be prohibitively costly. If people who are getting the environmental benefits are willing to pay, and electric power doesn’t have to pay for all the benefits, then [relicensing] could make sense. But I can’t name a project where that’s the case.”

Removal thus becomes the most economically viable option. For a private nonprofit like the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which would inherit the license to operate – or decommission – the dams, Bodington said securing funding is the key hurdle. “The question quickly becomes… Do you take the dam away, or simply breach it and leave most of it there? The cost implications of which it is are huge.”

Jared Huffman, whose second congressional district in California covers the Klamath watershed, remains “one hundred percent” confident the dams will be breached. “This will absolutely serve as a model for future projects -- but it’s going to be much more successful” if it happens quickly. “What matters is being invested in the success of this project, and we’re all invested.”

When Dams Are Removed, the Future Will Not Be the Past. Nor Should It.

Dam removal across the West is accelerating. Patricia Limerick, an environmental historian at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that effective change starts at the grassroots level, with movements like those of the Klamath tribes.

But there are risks of advocacy without complete understanding. FERC’s role in approving license transfer has resulted in public scrutiny. “FERC is being bombarded, people are writing from all over the world parroting the KRRC position that fish will populate again. Fact of the matter is that they don’t know what the issues are,” Marshall said.

FERC’s most recent move may not have done the dam-removal camp any favor by requiring that PacifiCorp remain involved — and liable — throughout the license transfer process. Bob Gravely, a communications specialist at the firm, said that though PacifiCorp remains committed to removing the dams, the ruling would force substantial changes to the original agreement, under which PacifiCorp would not have been responsible for potential damages.

While this ruling’s impact on the dams’ future remains unclear, Limerick sees FERC’s openness to a range of concerns — including environmental arguments — as evidence of a larger shift in attitudes from construction to conservation, and engineering to biology. Moyle agreed. “When I first got interested in dams, I started asking engineers: ‘How long do dams last?’ And they would say, as far as we know forever. But now we know that’s not true. Dams fail for various reasons, not all of them structural."

Changing notions of the West itself help explain both the new willingness to remove dams and the growing understanding that, when that is done, rivers will still never be what they once were. “There was a sense, even into the 1960s,” Pyne said, “that the story of America was a dialectic between European civilization and wilderness” — a flawed narrative that ignored the impact of indigenous peoples.

Moving away from the narrative of restoration toward a goal of environmental management will be its own challenge. Beardsmore, for her part, said that even if removal scars the land, “the [old] narrative is too powerful for reality to undermine it,” leaving the vision of restoration intact.

Pyne echoed this concern. "Americans are more prone to looking at the past than the future. We need to rewrite the agenda, and make the future better for our children…. otherwise you get the equivalent of Williamsburg. It’s fun, it’s a theme park, but people don’t live there."

Myers, the Yurok vice chair, said that the mystique of a recoverable past, and the countervailing narrative of economic development, are both uniquely American. “That conversation of balance hasn’t taken place in the country for 500 years — the only conversation has been around growth, with the idea that more growth always equals prosperity. We're finally getting to the place in our public consciousness where we can talk about balance… with the natural world, and recognize that we're not above it, and that what we do to it affects our lives.”

 

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Edited by Felicity Barringer.

 

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Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Anonymous Los Angeles

Responding to The Winners, the Losers, and the Landscape That Might Emerge If the Klamath River Dams Disappear

I have followed this project closely for several years. This is the most thorough, timely and balanced article that I have seen yet. In particular, the author should be commended for reaching out to several key players, obtaining excellent quotes from them and placing them in context. I look forward to reading your future updates on important issues in the Klamath River Basin, including the tradeoffs between restoring the river and agriculture.

8/27/2020,11:02am

Roger G.J. Rogers Upper Shasta Valley

Responding to The Winners, the Losers, and the Landscape That Might Emerge If the Klamath River Dams Disappear

Should the dams be breached. What is the current fisheries management plan for breaching dams. Does the the California Department of Fisheries have an approved plan to prevent some of the existing nonnative species such as bass, crappie, and perch, etc. from being introduced into the lower Klamath Watershed.

8/20/2020, 5:32pm

Francisco Nodarse responds:

The major emphasis of the research has been on what happens to native salmon, and some consideration has also been given to sucker fish. The writer makes a good point about bass, perch, and other fish. Some work on the issue of non-native species expansion in the wake of dam removal has been done by Desiree Tullos at Oregon State. Generally, scientists believe that species expansion is not a major threat in the Pacific Northwest. However, there is no clear answer to this question in the plans of fisheries experts we reviewed for this post.

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As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Articles Worth Reading: November 30, 2020

Permit for Alaska’s Pebble Mine Permit Denied, Again. After flirting with the notion of approving a project that both state and federal agencies warned would cause permanent harm the Koktuli River watershed, the Trump administration backed off. It denied a key permit for a massive gold and copper mine. Mine developers plan an appeal, but their project faces opposition from the incoming administration. Donald Trump Jr., Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, and prominent Republicans joined conservationists, commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives in the effort to block the mine. Washington Post Anchorage Daily News

It’s Not Just Car Tailpipes, It’s Car Tires that pollute the waters of San Francisco Bay. The San Francisco Estuary Institute has measured runoff after cars gather for big events, particularly events held during rainstorms. It estimates half of some 7.2 trillion synthetic particles washing into the bay each year come from tires – which now consist of both rubber and plastic polymers. The institute’s work broadens the focus of environmental damage from cars. Hakai

Federal Plans to Raise Shasta Dam were unveiled by the Bureau of Reclamation. Supporters, particularly those in the agricultural industry centered in California’s Central Valley, strongly support increasing the dam’s storage capacity by 200 billion gallons, or 634,000 acre-feet. The latest press release from the Bureau of Reclamation discusses the findings of its most recent environmental impact statement. Agnet West California Aggie

Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission Speeding Closures of Coal-Fired Power Plants to meet the state goal of slashing emissions in half by 2030. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, from 2011 to the middle of this year, some 95 gigawatts of coal capacity was taken offline another 25 GW is slated to shut down by 2025. Utility Dive

How Much Lithium Under the Salton Sea Can Be Retrieved? The huge lake in the southeastern California desert may sit atop a rich deposit of minerals just waiting to be developed. The hot water trapped beneath the basin's floor contains one of the world’s biggest deposits of lithium. This mineral, which now comes mostly from China, Australia and South America, has growing importance as automakers shift to electric cars powered by lithium-ion batteries. Bloomberg H2O Radio

To Fight Against Climate Change, the Swinomish Use Traditional Knowledge to recover the salmon central to the Indigenous group’s diet and traditions. In recent years, though, the tribe’s harvest, diminished by vanishing habitat and warming waters fueled by climate change, hasn’t been sufficient to feed the hundreds of people who come to pay homage to their ancestors and the fish that sustained them. Their ambitious climate strategy involves not only rebuilding oyster reefs, but, for salmon, restoring tidelands and ancient channels, planting trees along streambeds to cool warming waters and working with farmers to push back setbacks from streams. Some 50 other Native tribes are following the Swinomish lead. Washington Post

In a Tribute to Ansel Adams, a magazine produces a photo essay following in his path. Maptia

Articles Worth Reading: November 24, 2020

Breakthrough Deal Revives Plan for Largest U.S. Dam Demolition along the Oregon-California border. An agreement between the governors of Oregon and California paves the way for the demolition of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, creating the foundation for salmon restoration that would aid tribes in the area. The deal must now be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, with California officials optimistic that dam removal could start by 2023.

Associated Press San Francisco Chronicle

Federal Subsidies Accelerate the Draining of the Ogallala Aquifer. For decades, farmers have overdrawn the groundwater from the nation’s largest aquifer, which covers parts of eight states. New research shows that state and federal policies encourage the depletion, which now threatens drinking water supplies. Federal subsidies increased 65% in 2020, partly in payments to cover the pain of losses from trade wars. The subsidies put farmers on a treadmill, creating a vicious cycle of overproduction that requires intensive use of water. The Counter

New Mexico Ranchers Face Historic Drought, forcing some ranchers to sell their animals as there will not be enough grass to support the animals through the winter. The state is facing patches of extreme and exceptional drought, compounded by several summers of record heat and little rainfall. The pandemic is exacerbating the impact of the drought by hurting meat-packing plants and closing restaurants. Albuquerque Journal

Researchers Still Don’t Know Why So Many Birds Died This Fall. Thousands of bird deaths have been recorded across the western U.S. and Mexico. Researchers say the mass die-offs are unusual, finding piles of dead birds in one spot. It is unclear whether these incidents across the country are related or not, and scientists have posited causes ranging from extreme weather events and wildfire smoke to drought. Sierra Club Salt Lake Tribune

Placer County, Calif. Is America’s Riskiest Place for Wildfires. Computer modeling conducted by analytics firm Climate Check shows 17 counties, mostly clustered in the West, face the country’s greatest wildfire risk. Experts say development and population growth in remote areas and on the edge of cities, creating increased growth in the wildland urban interface, is responsible for much of the increased risk. E&E News

Congress Seeks Answers on Alaskan Mine Project. Democrats in the House of Representatives have launched an investigation into the Pebble Mine project, seeking to determine whether the developers misrepresented its plans to Alaskan Natives and the government. House leaders raised concerns that the developers privately planned a much larger and longer project while downplaying the mine to the public. If completed, Pebble Mine would be one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: November 17, 2020

Hoping to Lock In Drilling Rights on Alaska’s Pristine Coastal Plain, the outgoing Trump administration is asking oil and gas firms to select the places they hope to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The idea is to ensure a lease sale in the wilderness area of nearly 1.6 million acres can occur before the inauguration of a longtime opponent, President-Elect Joe Biden. Washington Post

Federal Judge Says Interior Department Ignored Climate Concerns in granting new Wyoming oil and gas leases. The judge blocked the move and called on federal regulators to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and conduct its environmental analysis and consider possible negative effects on the climate, before drilling on 282 lease parcels on 300,000 acres of federal land could be occur. Casper Star-Tribune

Canadian Environmental Groups Working With Shell Canada and Others to create a national carbon-offset system. The program is something that the government announced last year but has no built-in deadlines to follow. Shell is one of several oil companies pushing the federal government to create a national greenhouse gas offset program. Carbon offsets allow companies and individuals to invest in environmental projects in order to balance out their own greenhouse gas emissions. CBC

The Lights of Growing Communities Attract Deer. Deer Attract Cougars. Research shows that as light pollution grows, it mimics deer’s preferred dusk and dawn grazing times. But there are still enough dark spots for predators to hide and hunt, according to both satellite data and GPS data from 117 cougars and 486 mule deer in the southwest. Salt Lake Tribune

The Head of California’s Clean Air Agency Could Lead EPA under President-Elect Joe Biden. Mary Nichols has kept California focused on efforts to control greenhouse gases. But at the Air Resources Board, disquieting news surfaced about allegations of persistent slighting of Black employee in the agency, which is opening a discussion of the charges with all employees. Bloomberg News Sacramento Bee

Black Cowboys Reclaim Their History in the West Though historians estimate that as many as one-fourth of the cowboys in the late 1800s were Black, many of them have been erased from the history of the “Wild West.” But this history is remembered by men who gather at a ranch in South Phoenix owned by a retired Black trucker from Indiana. High Country News

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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