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Editorial:Klamath dam removal a good first step toward fixing water woes

By The Oregonian Editorial Board

on April 09, 2016
The agreement by Oregon, California and the utility PacifiCorp to remove four dams on the Klamath River is good news in that it shows a clear commitment to address longstanding water shortages suffered by farmers and ranchers in the arid Klamath Basin. But the immediate effect of removing the dams will be to help migrating salmon, not farmers, and the real water brokering ahead must involve constituents in the two-state basin and the U.S. Congress. It could, after years of trying by many, be a heavy lift.

Dam removal had been a stumbling block for Congress. It was part of a much broader set of agreements to avert crises in an agricultural region whose thirst for irrigation exceeds capacity and where some of the available water is sullied. Now, PacifiCorp, which owns the dams — three are in California, one in Oregon — will transfer title and license for the hydroelectric structures to a newly created nonprofit that will seek clearance for demolition through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, bypassing Congress altogether. Significant congressional doubters of the original multifaceted plan, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden among them, had feared that congressionally approved dam removal could set a dangerous precedent.

Removal of the dams, to be completed by 2020, is significant. While the dams account for only an estimated 2 percent of PacifiCorp’s capacity, they represent the taming of a once-wild river for settlement of the West and are valued, particularly by northern California conservatives, as assets to be protected. Their removal, however, will open up about 400 miles of habitat for Klamath River salmon, historically a mainstay of the Pacific salmon fishery, and honor longstanding commitments to upriver tribes.

But the newly surging river, which should see bolstered salmon populations, could also require of Klamath farmers expensive screens to keep salmon out of irrigation ditches. Enter Congress, which could, under multiple scenarios yet to take shape, be asked by both states for potentially more than $100 million to underwrite several projects across the basin, including compensation to ranchers who would be asked to trim their operations to repair tributary streams and improve the basin’s water quality.

Addressing the water shortage represents a delicate, emotionally charged give-and-take that involves farmers, ranchers, local and state elected leaders, members of Congress. It requires of all a clear-eyed recognition that the basin is oversubscribed, in part by the historical promotion of it by the federal government and in part by the historically errant belief that natural resources are infinite in their capacities.

Richard Whitman, Gov. Kate Brown’s policy adviser on the environment and a longtime coordinator of Klamath Basin constituents, told the editorial board of The Oregonian/OregonLive: “We still need a water deal. Removing the dams doesn’t address water certainty to irrigators — or the creation of reduced irrigation demand.” But Whitman, an optimist, said he was most gratified last week by the willingness of several ranchers and farmers to step up and support the announcement of dam removal — as if it were the beginning of something big, even though they’ll not see more water from it.

With the right follow-up, it could become something big. Whitman said he expected that Brown, in partnership with U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, would in the coming months likely issue a call to restart Klamath talks with everyone at the table. That includes Walden and other members of Oregon’s congressional delegation.

Must fatigue and crushed hopes among farmers, ranchers and tribes be overcome? Yes. Will opponents of water-brokering agreements as previously constructed again deride efforts at replumbing the basin as the work of environmental extremists and a few government elites? Surely. But: Will much of the Klamath Basin in the next inevitable drought go dry and cause farming and ranching families to lose livelihoods and wildlife to suffer? Absolutely.

Onward with the hard work of establishing a framework for reliable use and enjoyment of the Klamath Basin. Previous complex and finely tuned efforts at addressing water shortages will be honored when a plan serving multiple interests is presented to Congress — and dams are not even in the discussion.

Source:http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2016/04/klamath_dam_removal_a_good_fir.html

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