Congress should stop blocking restoration of Klamath River

Rep. Jared Huffman
Rep. Jared Huffman

On the cusp of commencing one of the most significant river restoration projects in history – a project that would remove four old dams that have diminished water quality and harmed salmon migrating along the mighty Klamath River – it is disappointing that some of our Republican colleagues continue to stand in the way of progress.

For years, we have supported a balanced deal to resolve conflicts on the Klamath. We have supported the efforts of the states of California and Oregon, the private owner of the Klamath dams, numerous Indian tribes, local governments, fishermen, farmers and environmentalists to develop a reasonable water management plan. But after decades of conflict and years of negotiation, the dam-removal deal negotiated by the affected parties was jeopardized when House Republicans refused to even introduce legislation to honor the deal before a crucial deadline last year.

Fortunately, the states and the dam owner, PacifiCorp, have figured out a way around the roadblock in Congress. The dam removal will be modeled after an admirable, smaller dam-removal project on the Penobscot River in Maine, which restored native fish populations and the river habitat almost immediately.

California and Oregon will form a nonprofit corporation to take ownership of the four dams on the Klamath River, and use existing federal authority to decommission and remove them. A free-flowing river with hundreds of additional miles of salmon habitat will replace a river plagued by aging, fish-blocking dams that don’t produce much power.

The effort to rebuild this historic river is long overdue. For decades, the four Klamath dams have wrecked a significant salmon and steelhead river, harmed tribes and threatened fishing jobs across the West Coast. Yet some in Congress are still trying to derail the agreement in any way possible.

After successfully blocking dam removal that should have proceeded through consensus legislation – and failing to support a water deal to help farmers in their own districts – some in Congress are now alleging that dam removal is somehow illegal.

This claim is nonsense. We’re talking about four dams that are not owned or operated by the federal government and a dam owner and two states that want to remove them pursuant to existing law. Are the critics attacking this plan really suggesting that the federal government should interfere in this locally driven effort?

Last year, the Congressional Research Service documented the way dams are decommissioned through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process under the Federal Power Act. The Congressional Research Service laid out the clear authority for a willing dam owner – in this case, PacifiCorp – to surrender its license for decommissioning. Nowhere in its analysis did it say that members of Congress have special standing to politicize and interfere with this straightforward process.

While we recognize that some of our colleagues feel compelled to say that the Klamath’s dams should stay where they are – a politically popular stance in some corners – it’s hypocritical for self-proclaimed free-market, states’ rights politicians to block a private party from unloading assets through a longstanding, congressionally approved process.

It’s long past time for the Klamath dams to come out, and for local stakeholders to begin the work of resuscitating a major West Coast river without being burdened by interference and obstruction from Washington.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, represents California’s 2nd Congressional District. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona is the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources.