Capitol Alert

Coalition moving to demolish Klamath River dams without Congress’s assent

Klamath Basin water accords crumble

Stakeholders in the Klamath basin describe what it feels like for Congress to allow a landmark watershed agreement to expire in 2015.
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Stakeholders in the Klamath basin describe what it feels like for Congress to allow a landmark watershed agreement to expire in 2015.

Federal officials and the states of California and Oregon said Tuesday they will press forward with plans to demolish four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, despite resistance from Congress.

The announcement comes after a set of demolition, water-sharing and habitat restoration agreements stalled in Washington.

By separating dam removal from a broader pact, the states and power company that owns the dams, Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp, will seek to move forward with their own funding – and without congressional approval.

The new accord, however, sets aside other elements of restoration and water-sharing agreements designed to settle longstanding feuds over management of the river, which flows from southern Oregon to the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. Some proponents of those agreements said they will oppose efforts to demolish the dams alone.

“It’s not OK for that to be happening absent the more comprehensive water settlement,” said Greg Addington, former director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents the interests of about 1,200 farms and ranches in the Klamath Basin. “It’s not what was agreed to.”

The agreements, reached by tribes, farmers and other groups, had promised habitat restoration and guaranteed Klamath Basin farmers a more reliable supply of water. But they hinged on removal of the four privately owned dams – three in California and one in Oregon – viewed as harmful to migratory fish.

PacifiCorp said it will contribute $200 million to the cost of demolition. In addition, the water bond California voters approved in 2014, while not directly mentioning the dams, included language to “remove barriers to fish passage.”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, released in January, included $250 million “to meet the state’s commitments under the Klamath Agreements.”

“We will move ahead as a group and start the process,” California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird told lawmakers at a committee hearing.

The dams are used primarily for hydroelectric power and provide little water storage. Farmers in the area receive their water from sources upstream of the dams. But Republicans have blocked efforts to advance legislation that included the dams’ removal.

“Tearing down four perfectly good hydroelectric dams when we can’t guarantee enough electricity to keep your refrigerator running this summer is lunacy,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, said in a written statement in December.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said Tuesday that project proponents were left with no choice but to separate dam removal from the broader agreement.

“Allowing the politics of this situation to keep standing in the way of dam removal and river restoration was unacceptable,” he said.

The management of the Klamath Basin area has long been contentious, with concerns about fish kill-offs and water for agriculture. Under the agreements, Klamath Basin farmers agreed to take less water in exchange for more reliability, with area tribes – which hold senior water rights – agreeing to share water with farmers in exchange for habitat restoration and the retirement of thousands of acres of agricultural land.

“We hoped to implement a more ambitious plan to resolve Klamath water disputes between fishing and farming communities, but Congressional Republicans blocked our efforts,” Leaf Hillman of the Karuk Tribe said in a prepared statement.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders