After the Obama administration helped broker a deal last year to tear down four dams straddling the California-Oregon border, practically everyone involved figured President Donald Trump would undermine it. They assumed Trump would side with conservative activists and Republican congressmen who thwarted an earlier version of the same agreement in 2015.
Those assumptions are proving wrong.
The Trump administration’s point person on the Klamath River says the federal government isn’t going to stand in the way of bringing the dams down by 2020, in what would be the largest dam-removal project in American history.
“We do not intend to intervene materially in any way in this process,” said Alan Mikkelsen, acting commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in an interview last week with The Sacramento Bee.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The fight over the Klamath River is one of country’s fiercest, longest-running water wars. Since 2001, it has pitted California’s largest Indian tribes, environmentalists and the salmon-fishing industry against influential farmers and ranchers in Southern Oregon and Northeastern California. Mikkelsen said he’d like to broker a wide-ranging water-sharing agreement that goes beyond dam removal.
“The only way to go forward with this is to ultimately have all the people in the (Klamath) Basin come together to decide what their future is going to look like,” he said.
Dam removal advocates say Mikkelsen’s remarks are a good sign – and not what they expected from Trump’s people.
“So far, I have to say the administration’s Klamath team is committed to restoring the fishery and brokering some sort of water-sharing agreement between the fisheries’ interests and irrigation interests,” said Craig Tucker, who advocates for dam removal on behalf of the Karuk Tribe. Its members have been fighting for nearly 20 years to demolish the dams in the hopes that doing so will restore the historic salmon runs the tribe has relied on for centuries.
Conversely, dam-removal opponents see Mikkelsen’s statements as a stab in the back. They thought the Trump administration, which has clashed with environmental groups over extracting energy from the environment, would fight for the hydroelectric power the dams generate.
“It seems to be counterintuitive to what the administration stands for,” said Michael Kobseff, a Siskiyou County supervisor.
Siskiyou County, on California’s northern border, is where three of the four dams are located. Residents widely oppose dam removal, fearing a loss of electricity and a reduction in property values for homes on some of the reservoirs formed by the dams.
They also worry that dam removal would make water quality in the river worse – all fears dam removal proponents say are overblown.
The dispute over how to share the Klamath has been playing out since the presidency of George W. Bush. Just last month, a federal judge ruled against Klamath Basin farmers, in a case that sought to have the U.S. government pay them millions of dollars for taking water away from their farms 16 years earlier.
The judge ruled that Indian tribes along the Klamath that had sought more water for fish have senior water rights, so no payment was necessary.
The case stems from the spring of 2001, when federal water regulators shut off the water to Klamath Basin farms in Southern Oregon and near Tulelake in Northeastern California amid concerns that farmers pulling water from the watershed would kill coho salmon and two other endangered fish species.
In response, nearly 10,000 farmers and their allies rallied in “bucket brigade” protests. At one point, a small group of activists took a blowtorch and saw to a closed irrigation-canal head gate.
The next year, the Bush administration reversed course and let farmers irrigate. Tribes, environmental groups and fishing associations were outraged, in turn, when tens of thousands of migrating salmon died in the low flows that followed the water diversions.
In 2004, with lawsuits pending, the various factions began talks. They eventually hashed out a series of settlements to bring the dams down – a victory for environmentalists, anglers and the salmon-dependent tribes living in impoverished rural communities along the Klamath. They say the dams block salmon and other migratory fish from 400 miles of habitat, reduce water quality and contribute to the low flows that kill fish. They blame the dams for significantly contributing to the closure of this year’s salmon fishing season on the Klamath due to historically low numbers of fish coming back to the river to spawn.
Klamath Basin farmers agreed to take less water in exchange for more reliability, with guaranteed amounts set each year. The farmers are upstream of the dams and receive none of the water stored in them. The dams’ sole function is power generation. Meanwhile, a wildlife refuge complex, an annual stopover for millions of migrating birds, was due to get almost as much water as the farmers.
The dams’ owner, Portland-based PacifiCorp, got something, too: By giving up a series of aging dams that supplies just a sliver of the utility’s electricity needs, it avoided having to pay an estimated $400 million in facility upgrades needed to get them re-licensed.
The settlements all died in 2015, however, after congressional Republicans refused to authorize the millions of dollars needed to decommission the dams.
“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 at the time. McClintock described the dam-removal agreements as a “greens-gone-wild episode.”
The next year, the Obama administration worked with Gov. Jerry Brown, his Oregon counterpart, tribal governments, fishing groups and PacifiCorp to make a new deal that focuses solely on dam removal and doesn’t require congressional approval. No federal tax dollars are involved; PacifiCorp ratepayers in both states are contributing surcharges, and California has committed up to $250 million, toward the costs of removing the dams.
The dams’ removal wouldn’t eliminate all of the controversies surrounding the Klamath. Mikkelsen said he hopes to resurrect the water-sharing agreements envisioned in the original settlements – now that the dam-removal component is being handled separately.
Mikkelsen, who is from Montana, was appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He chaired Zinke’s congressional campaign. Prior to that, Mikkelsen was chief of staff for former Republican Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg. Mikkelsen once worked as a fishing guide, and at one point ran a consulting firm that mediated disputes between Native American tribes and water users in Montana.
Since taking the job this spring, Mikkelsen said he has been trying to learn all he can about the Klamath watershed. He is planning his third trip to the area this week.
This summer, he drove the windy length of the river from the mouth in foggy Del Norte County to the Oregon border. He said he was struck by how few people were using the Klamath in the heart of the summer, at a time when other similarly rugged rivers across the U.S. would be packed with fishermen, campers and river rafters.
“I couldn’t believe that there was nobody there utilizing an area that I found frankly to be very striking and very beautiful,” he said.
He said something needs to be done to bring the river back to life, a task that will require compromises in a political environment where no one wants to give an inch. He said it’s important for everyone to understand the “future is not going to look like the past,” and that means pushing back against the uncompromising politics of “you are either with me all the way or you are against me all the way.”