People of good will struck a historic pact to end the decades-long Klamath River basin water war. Then partisan politicians intervened.
The Republican-controlled Congress adjourned without approving tens of millions to help restore environmental damage caused by four antiquated Klamath River dams, three of them in California and one in Oregon.
Congress’ failure meant a critical portion of the Klamath Agreements expired with the start of 2016 and could unravel a compromise that was years in the making, as The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Michael Doyle recently reported. Disappointed though they are, participants should stick together and press for solutions.
The Klamath River accord had its origins in 2008, in the final days of President George W. Bush’s administration when federal officials announced the deal’s outlines. Bush officials had been dealing with the issue from the start of their time in office.
In the 2001 drought, farmers, unable to plant for lack of water, dramatized their plight by creating a mile-and-a-half-long bucket brigade in Klamath Falls, Ore. Later that summer, desperate farmers forcibly opened gates to let water flow to their fields, as downstream Indian tribes and commercial fishermen fought to maintain river flows to preserve what fisheries survived.
The deal took shape: PacifiCorp, which owns the hydroelectric dams, agreed to help dismantle them by 2020. Klamath tribes ceded some water to upper basin farmers in exchange for habitat restoration. Farmers agreed to claim less water in exchange for greater reliability. Without the dams, hundreds of miles of spawning habitat could be restored, promising better days for commercial fishermen.
The $7.5 billion water bond measure approved by California voters last year includes $250 million to help pay for dam removal. PacifiCorp, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, pledged $200 million. It all depended on congressional action.
PacifiCorp sought congressional legislation granting it immunity from lawsuits stemming from flooding or short-term damage to fisheries caused by the dams’ removal. That legislation, vital to PacifiCorp, stalled. So did any appropriation for environmental restoration.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, whose district includes three of the four dams, says he sees no reason for the federal government to participate in dam removal. Successful politician that he is, LaMalfa is tending to his conservative State of Jefferson constituents, who seem determined to keep the dams. If only he were more statesmanlike, LaMalfa would consider the greater good and make clear that the dams must go.
Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican who lives in Elk Grove, hundreds of miles from the Klamath, piled on in his typically glib partisan fashion, calling it lunacy to remove “four perfectly good hydroelectric dams.” His facile words aside, the dams aren’t perfectly fine.
Built 50 and 100 years ago, before the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act became law, the dams have destroyed fisheries, have combined water storage of a mere 109,230 acre-feet, a relative drop, and account for only 2 percent of PacifiCorp’s electricity. Company executives say they could easily replace the lost power.
Congress’ failure to act might not spare the dams. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must decide whether to renew PacifiCorp’s license to operate the dams. The commission could require costly improvements to restore fisheries, or insist that the dams be torn down.
The dysfunction that threatens to unravel the Klamath accords does not bode well for California as officials confront other complex water-related issues.
In that proceeding, Oregon and California officials will have their say. The State Water Resources Control Board next month will begin reviewing the scope of a study to determine whether the dams violate the Clean Water Act, in preparation for a report to the federal energy commission.
As part of that process, the board expects to require a full Environmental Impact Report, which would take a year or more. Although the dams still could be removed by 2020, California’s environmental law also could get in the way.
How ironic it would be if the Klamath River ecosystem were to be degraded further because of California’s cumbersome environmental law. The Klamath Basin has been studied repeatedly, to death. The state needs to act expeditiously.
Downstream Indian tribes, their patience exhausted, could seek to force the issue by suing.
The dysfunction that threatens to unravel the Klamath accords does not bode well for California as officials confront other complex water-related issues, among them whether the state can muster the political will and money to build Sites reservoir.
Unlike the Klamath dams, Sites would help ease the statewide impact of future droughts and give operators greater flexibility as they seek to maintain the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem.
Operators would fill Sites – its capacity would be 1.8 million acre-feet, 16 times greater than the four Klamath reservoirs – by diverting water to it during high flows on the Sacramento River. Because it would not require the damming of a river, Sites would cause little if any damage to fisheries.
California must improve its water system and enhance the environment. Just as Congress ought to allocate money to help pay for Klamath basin restoration, partisans need to put aside their differences for the good of the state and pitch in.