We don’t expect Warren Buffett to keep tabs on the inner workings of all the companies he owns. But he needs to know what is going on right now with one of them: Portland-based PacifiCorp. That’s because Buffett and PacifiCorp have an opportunity to simultaneously do something extraordinary for one of the great rivers of the West while making a very prudent financial decision for ratepayers and shareholders.
After decades of controversy and campaigning by area tribes, fishing and environmental groups, what is likely the largest dam removal project to date worldwide is poised to commence on the Klamath River in far-Northern California and Southern Oregon. Four aging hydropower dams are on the brink of being removed, reconnecting hundreds of miles of habitat for salmon and other species blocked for more than a century by dams built without fish passage. In addition, the improvements to water quality and fisheries that will result from dam removal help reduce regulatory burdens on area farmers and ranchers.
But it isn’t only fish and tribes that will benefit from freeing the river. Removing the antiquated dams is in the financial interest of Buffet and his shareholders. That is because the state of California has written a check for $250 million to underwrite more than half the cost. PacifiCorp pledged $200 million, which has already been collected from its customers through a special surcharge. But the agreement that set the terms for dam removal included the idea that PacifiCorp could make its financial contribution to the project and then walk away with no liability. Two dozen parties — including numerous conservation organizations, tribes, federal agencies and two states — agreed to that demand in a settlement deal with PacifiCorp. Many conservation leaders had to swallow hard at giving a wealthy corporation such a sweet deal, but decided it was worth it just to get the dams down as fast as possible.
But the multiparty pact requires the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which in July signaled approval for the approach in general, but with a twist — PacifiCorp does not get to walk away completely from the project before the dams are removed. The public interest is not served by allowing a utility to make a fortune off an environmentally damaging project without seeing it through to the end, when these dams are removed.
So now PacifiCorp is balking. They want to study the issue. That is code language for delay, and crashing salmon runs don’t have time for corporate dithering.
What’s to study? The issue is crystal-clear.
The options are: 1) Accept a $250 million gift, enjoy layers of liability insurance paid for by the state of California and ratepayers, and restore salmon runs hovering on the brink of extinction, or 2) Walk away from a quarter billion dollars of public money, build new fish ladders and invest in other environmental fixes with costs likely to exceed $500 million, invite lawsuits and additional agency regulations related to endangered species and water quality violations, and perpetuate an injustice on native peoples whose livelihoods and cultures are being decimated by the dams. Talk about liability. And it would all be on PacifiCorp, their customers and their shareholders.
The clock is ticking. FERC wants an answer. California and Oregon want an answer. Tribes want an answer. The conservation community wants an answer. Every delay further endangers critically important salmon runs. PacifiCorp has to either accept the conditions laid down by FERC, or face the scrutiny of an America that is increasingly interested in justice for indigenous communities and other marginalized groups.
Warren Buffett and PacifiCorp, we need your decisive leadership. Please make the decision now that will get this done. This is the very definition of a win-win.
Bruce Shoemaker is a researcher on hydropower and rivers and lead editor of the 2018 book about the World Bank and hydropower, “Dead in the Water” (University of Wisconsin Press). Since 2019, through an affiliation with International Rivers, he has been focusing on dam removal in the Klamath Basin, where he lives.
A dam removal project in the Rogue River watershed this summer is proving that it’s possible to find solutions that benefit both salmon and farms.
The Lower Bridgepoint Dam on Williams Creek, a tributary to the Applegate River, provides water for irrigation, but restricts habitat for Chinook and coho salmon, as well as steelhead and lamprey. Now, thanks to the collaboration of the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council and with support from the Bureau of Land Management and private landowners, the dam is coming down and the habitat will be restored.
This dam removal adds to the ongoing restoration efforts in the mighty Rogue River watershed, renowned for its world-class sport fishing. These projects help Rogue River salmon sustain recreational and commercial fishing, despite recent droughts that have devastated fish in other rivers in the state.
One of the keys to this success has been creative thinking around water infrastructure solutions. Two farms that currently rely on the dam for their water — Whistling Duck Farms and Blue Fox Farms — will benefit from a more modern, efficient water supply system. A headgate will be installed to divert water into a new irrigation pipeline, while water in Williams Creek flows unimpeded.
These are the types of win-win projects we need right now, as our region faces multiple interconnected challenges. Healthy rivers are the source of all life, yet they’ve been dammed and degraded for decades, and salmon runs are struggling. The economic downturn is creating new strains for individuals and businesses, while climate change is creating growing threats to water supplies, river health and local food security.
We can strengthen our communities and build resilience in the face of these threats by restoring river health and investing in water infrastructure. American Rivers recently released a report, “Rivers as Economic Engines: Investing in clean water, communities and our future” which details the jobs and economic benefits of clean water and river restoration (read the report at AmericanRivers.org/InvestInRivers)
For example, a 2010 study from the University of Oregon found that every $1 million invested in watershed restoration creates 16 new or sustained jobs on average. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many rural communities rely on for their livelihoods. The Outdoor Industry Association’s National Recreation Economy Report found that Americans participating in water sports and fishing spend over $174 billion on gear and trip-related expenses. And, the outdoor water sports and fishing economy supports over 1.5 million jobs nationwide and 1 out of every 20 in Oregon.
The dam removal project on Williams Creek is a great example of the type of project we need to see more of, here in Oregon and across our region. It’s why American Rivers, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and local communities are calling on Congress to invest $500 billion over 10 years in rivers and water infrastructure. This kind of investment will pay off in a stronger economy and healthier communities for generations to come.
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio has been a staunch supporter of clean water and smart infrastructure investments, including most recently to support critical wildlife migration as a part of a package of legislation that he sponsored and ushered out of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which he chairs. We applaud his leadership and urge him to continue support collaborative and creative solutions for healthy rivers and communities.
When Lower Bridgepoint Dam comes down this summer, the story won’t be about what’s being taken away. The story won’t be about losing a dam. It will be about gaining something new — a healthier river, a more efficient water supply and stronger connections between people and nature. It will be about building a better future.
Dave Strahan of Grants Pass is a board member of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. David Moryc is senior director of American Rivers.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Gov. Gavin Newsom has appealed directly to investor Warren Buffett to support demolishing four hydroelectric dams on a river along the Oregon-California border to save salmon populations that have dwindled to almost nothing.
Newsom on Wednesday sent a letter to Buffett urging him to back the Klamath River project, which would be the largest dam removal in U.S. history.
The dams are owned by PacificCorp, an Oregon-based utility that is part of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. conglomerate.
The $450 million project would reshape California’s second-largest river and empty giant reservoirs. It could also revive plummeting salmon populations by reopening hundreds of miles of potential habitat that has been blocked for more than a century.
That could bring relief to a half-dozen Native American tribes that rely on salmon fishing and are spread across hundreds of miles in southern Oregon and northern California.
“The river is sick, and the Klamath Basin tribes are suffering,” Newsom wrote, calling the removal project “a shining example of what we can accomplish when we act according to our values.”
The letter was sent to Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway’s chairman and PacifiCorp’s president.
Efforts to remove the dams and restore the basin have been in the works for a dozen years. Newsom supports a 2016 agreement under which PacifiCorp would transfer its federal hydroelectric licenses for the dams to a nonprofit coalition, the Klamath River Renewal Corp., that was formed to oversee the demolition.
PacifiCorp ratepayers in Oregon and California are contributing $200 million for the project but the plan allows the utility to avoid liability for additional costs. Another $250 million would come from a 2014 voter-approved California water bond.
But two weeks ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission made a decision that could threaten the deal. The agency approved the license transfer on condition that PacifiCorp remain a co-licensee with the Klamath River Renewal Corp.
The agency said it believes the nonprofit is capable of carrying out the project, and it is concerned that the corporation “has limited finances and no experience with hydropower dam operation or dam removal.”
“Costs could escalate beyond the level anticipated and unexpected technical issues could arise. Were the Renewal Corp. to be the sole licensee, it might ultimately be faced with matters that it is not equipped to handle,” the agency said.
The decision creates “significant” challenges but the corporation is confident it can work with stakeholders in the project to “once again craft a balanced solution,” said a letter to Newsom Thursday signed by Stefan A. Bird, president and chief executive officer of Pacific Power, which is owned by PacifiCorp.
“We share your concerns about social and environmental progress and remain committed to solving these deeply rooted cultural and community impacts,” the letter said.
Several tribes as well as fishing and conservation groups issued a joint statement urging Buffett’s support.
“Walking away from the agreement will put PacifiCorp ratepayers on the hook for all the risks and liabilities associated with fish kills, toxic algae blooms, lawsuits, and violations of tribal rights,” the statement said. “We urge Warren Buffett and PacifiCorp to end the delays and move the dam removal process forward immediately.”
The dams are the southernmost of six built in southern Oregon and California’s far north beginning in 1918 to provide electrical power. They are also part of an irrigation system serving vast farming areas.
The four dams to be demolished lack concrete chutes called fish ladders through which fish can pass to reach upstream spawning areas. Renewing the licenses would require hundreds of millions of dollars in federally mandated modifications, including adding fish ladders.
Coho salmon from the Klamath River are listed as threatened under federal and California law, and their population in the river has fallen anywhere from 52% to 95%. Spring chinook, once the Klamath Basin’s largest run, has dwindled by 98%.
Fall chinook, the last to persist in any significant numbers, have been so meager in the past few years that the Yurok canceled fishing for the first time in the tribe’s memory.
More than 1,700 aging dams have been dismantled around the U.S. since 2012, according to the nonprofit group American Rivers. The Klamath River project would be the largest by far if it proceeds.
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
Over the next couple of weeks, crews will fully remove the 125-foot-wide, 25-foot-tall dam, allowing the Middle Fork Nooksack to run free for the first time in 60 years. With the dam’s removal, 16 miles of river and tributary habitat will open up to help boost populations of three threatened Puget Sound fish species: Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout.
“This project has always ranked at the top of the list for fish recovery projects in this area because of the sheer number of miles of river habitat that are available upstream in a fairly remote and pristine area,” says Renee LaCroix, assistant public works director for the city of Bellingham, which owns the dam. “There’s no other single project in this area that can match this.”
Two local tribes, the Nooksack and Lummi Nation, have been behind the effort to help restore fish passage and the river’s ecological integrity.
“Our natural resources are our cultural resources,” says Trevor Delgado, the Nooksack tribal historic preservation officer. “With this removal we get a little piece of our home back — a place where our people have visited for hundreds of generations.”
LaCroix says the project has no downsides for the city, and it’s expected to increase the resilience of the municipal water supply, remove a safety hazard for kayakers, help fish recovery and restore culturally significant resources for the tribes.
But even with the dam removal’s many benefits and municipal and tribal support, the path to this moment hasn’t been easy.
The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.
For generations the river and its surrounding habitat have physically and spiritually nourished Indigenous peoples — including the Nooksack Indian Tribe and the Lummi Nation.
But all that changed when the dam was built in in 1961 to divert water to the city of Bellingham to supplement its main water supply in Lake Whatcom — the drinking water for the now-85,000 residents in the city and county. As soon as it went up, the dam obstructed fish passage, altered the river’s flow, and disrupted the ability of tribal members to use a culturally significant area.
For the past four decades, Delgado says, the Nooksack have pushed for dam removal. They got close in the early 2000s, when the Nooksack and Lummi Nation entered into an official agreement with the city and state to work on a solution that would allow fish passage, including the possible installation of fish ladders. But despite years of work, a suitable fix wasn’t found, and the effort had completely stalled by 2016.
The following year the nonprofit American Rivers, which works on watershed restoration and has extensive experience in dam-removal efforts, stepped in with financial backing from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. American Rivers’ April McEwan assumed a project management role and brought parties back to the table and soon into agreement on a plan to remove the dam and reengineer the city’s water intake from the river.
“What we know about dam removal is that if you can remove the infrastructure and restore the channel to natural conditions, that’s always the best way to get fish passage,” says McEwan.
The final cost of the project came in at around $20 million — way more than the city could afford on its own. About half of the cost eventually came from the state and the city is collaborating with federal agencies on the distribution of another $2 million in Pacific Salmon Treaty funds. But before applying for that money, the city had to complete costly initial design and permitting work. Private foundations — largely the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, along with Resources Legacy Fund — picked up 70% of those initial costs.
LaCroix says help from American Rivers and the foundations was hugely important in getting the project “shovel ready” so it could apply for the construction funds it needed.
Removing the dam infrastructure was just part of the cost, though. Reworking the city’s water intake also required some tricky engineering.
A Plan Comes Together
The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents’ taps.
Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.
They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn’t sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.
“The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards,” explains LaCroix.
Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.
“I think there’s a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time,” she says. “A static fish ladder just can’t provide that same level of ecosystem benefit.”
Despite local authorities’ championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River, a major tributary of the Columbia River.
Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there’s been more pushback against removal efforts.
Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.
Most notably the 1999 demolition of Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.
The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of two dams on Elwha River, which runs through Washington’s Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they’ve observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack
McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.
Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.
The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.
“This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species,” says McEwan.
Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.
That could help Southern Resident killer whales.
“When you get to the ocean, it’s a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas,” McEwan says.
Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.
Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.
“Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system,” says Delgado.
But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won’t be immediate.
“The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it’s going to take quite a while to rebound,” she says. “But the big picture is that what’s good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined.”
After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.
The Supreme Court today declined to consider whether federal regulators violated farmers’ constitutional rights when they cut off irrigation water to save fish in the Pacific Northwest.
Facing drought in 2001, the George W. Bush administration shut off water deliveries from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath River project to farms in south-central Oregon and Northern California. The goal was to provide water to threatened salmon species downriver.
The farmers revolted. They stormed irrigation canals, and one group took a blowtorch to a diversion head gate.
Their efforts were successful. The following year, Reclamation restored irrigation water deliveries to roughly 200,000 acres of cropland. It led to salmon die-off; according to some estimates, up to 70,000 fish washed up on the river’s shores.
Reclamation’s 2001 decision remains controversial nearly 20 years later. A group of farmers contend that the curtailment of water deliveries amounted to a “taking” of their property without just compensation under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.
The farmers’ legal efforts have been less successful than their protests, however.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled last November that the decision was not a taking because Native American tribes, including the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes, hold rights to the water that are higher priority than the irrigation project’s claims.
Farmers’ “water rights are subordinate to the Tribes’ federal reserved water rights,” the court ruled. “We therefore see no error in the court’s holding that the Bureau of Reclamation’s action in temporarily halting deliveries of Klamath Project water in 2001 did not constitute a taking of appellants’ property” (Greenwire, Nov. 14, 2019).
The farmers enlisted a veteran Supreme Court water attorney and asked the Supreme Court to review the lower bench’s ruling (Greenwire, March 17).
Today, the justices declined the petition in a short order without explanation, as is customary. The court accepts only a tiny percentage of the petitions it receives.
The Fifth Amendment protects the right to life, liberty, and property. This week, the Supreme Court should take a critical step to protect the private property rights of farmers and ranchers in the Western states. Their rights were infringed upon by a lower court ruling that upended the water laws of the region and abandoned over a century of federal deference to state law for adjudicating and administering water rights.
The Supreme Court is considering whether to grant review in Baley v. United States, a case that involves bedrock principles of Western law, federalism, and the Fifth Amendment. In the West, the use of water for irrigation is a property right, earned by diligent work and beneficial use of the water. The conflict in Baley centers on the federal government taking water developed and stored solely for irrigation uses authorized through the 1905 Klamath Project.
In 2001, after a century of providing safe and affordable food, farmers had their water reallocated to protect endangered species. Specifically, based on advice from wildlife agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation redirected the farmers’ water to the Klamath River to boost instream flows and required all the remaining water to be left in Upper Klamath Lake to provide extra water for two species of suckerfish that live there.
Adding insult to injury, the Natural Resources Council of the National Academy of Sciences found that there was no scientific basis for taking the farmers’ water; more water, it noted, would not entail more fish. But that finding was too late, and the only possible redress was through the courts. The farmers’ claim was simple: Society chose to adopt and implement the Endangered Species Act in a way that took their property, and so, under the Fifth Amendment, the government is required to pay for the property that it took.
Unfortunately, justice has been long delayed. The case saw delays, appeals, and remands in the federal court system. It even required a side trip to the Oregon Supreme Court, which corrected the federal trial court’s misunderstanding of Western water law principles.
Eventually, 16 years after the taking, the trial court recognized that many of the involved water rights were compensable property rights of the landowners. But the trial court and the Court of Appeals went on and made findings that have upset many public and private entities throughout the West. In particular, the lower courts found that there were, as of 2001, senior federal reserved water rights for the benefit of tribal fisheries, which, by their existence, meant that the farmers really didn’t have a right to the water to begin with.
However, this post-hoc rationalization is flawed. Even if there was a reserved right, these courts ignored the Supreme Court’s 1978 ruling, which limited the quantity of a reserved right to the “minimum amount” necessary for the primary purposes called out in the act establishing the reservation. Subsequent rulings establish that the date of priority of a reserved right is the date of the establishment of the act.
Water rights law is complex and determined and quantified in state adjudication proceedings. Also, states administer water rights based on relative priorities of all parties in a system. By contrast, here, the water was taken from one group of parties under the ESA based on opinions of federal agency staff. Court decisions limiting reserved rights, state authority over water, and state water law were ignored. Also, the farms and ranches rely on water that is stored in reservoirs during relatively wet periods for use during the dry summer. Water stored for irrigation under state law cannot be subject to a federal right claim, but the lower courts did not bother to sort that out.
The federal circuit court’s decision is disruptive, inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent, and at odds with fundamental principles of Western water law. “Friend of the court” briefs have been filed by scores of parties, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Oregon Water Resources Congress, New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the Association of California Water Agencies, the Pacific Legal Foundation, and legal scholars.
The issues in Baley are of broad Western and national importance. The Supreme Court should accept the petition for review of the case to honor the Fifth Amendment and respect the principles of cooperative federalism that guide Western water rights and the economies that depend on those principles.
Rep. Greg Walden represents Oregon’s 2nd District in the U.S. House. Rep. Doug LaMalfa represents California’s 1st District in the U.S. House. Cliff Bentz is an Oregon state senator.
Study issued Tuesday looks at causes of warming water on Snake and Columbia rivers
By Eric Barker, of the Tribune
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a report Tuesday detailing summertime water temperature problems on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers and assigning significant responsibility to federal dams.
The report said dams on both rivers play a role in raising water temperatures above 68 degrees — the state water quality standards of Washington and Oregon, and the point at which the water becomes harmful to salmon and steelhead. The causes of the increasing water temperatures are known as Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.
But federal authors also noted the Snake River often exceeds temperature standards before it enters Washington from Idaho, as does the Columbia River when it enters the state from Canada.
The report, that is being released for public comment, is likely to play a role in the long-simmering debate over the role dams play in the decline of threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead. In addition to being a source of mortality to juvenile fish during their migration to the Pacific Ocean, the dams can also harm returning adults. By slowing the flow and increasing the surface area exposed to the sun, the dams cause the Snake River to increase as much as 5.7 degrees, according to the report.
Temperatures higher than 68 degrees can cause adult fish to stall during their return from the ocean and in some cases, such as 2015 when the rivers warmed into the 70s and stayed there for weeks, it can lead to significant mortality. That year, much of the Columbia and Snake river sockeye runs were wiped out by hot water.
Other sources of heating identified by the report include water entering from tributaries; regulated discharges, known as point sources, from things like factories or municipal wastewater treatment plants; and from increased air temperatures attributed to climate change.
But the dams play an outsized role.
“EPA’s analysis of the cumulative nonpoint source heat loading from dam impoundments shows that the dam impoundments have a greater temperature impact than point sources and tributaries,” according to the report.
Environmental groups hailed the report Tuesday as a needed step toward lowering temperatures and improving conditions for salmon and steelhead. Following the 2015 heat event that hammered sockeye, a coalition of groups including Columbia Riverkeeper, Snake River Waterkeeper and Idaho Rivers United went to court to force the EPA to finish writing the report that had been stalled for nearly two decades.
“We are pleased that it’s done and identifies the hot water problems on the Columbia and Snake rivers,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper.
The document is not prescriptive and it will largely be up to the states to determine how water quality problems identified in the report should be addressed. VandenHeuvel said breaching the four lower Snake River dams would help meet water quality standards as well as boost salmon and steelhead.
“The water temperatures in the Snake are so hot in the summer that I think dam removal is the best way to restore salmon and provide water cool enough for their survival,” he said.
That type of prescription or calls for more water to be spilled at dams troubles Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners. Given that the Snake and Columbia rivers are often overheated when they enter Washington, he would like regulators in Oregon and Washington to reexamine their water quality standards.
“The states may have established water quality standards that are unattainable even if the lower Snake and mid-Columbia river dams were not in place,” he said. “It would be unfair to penalize the communities that rely on hydropower for river temperatures way beyond their control.”
The largest dam removal project in U.S. history came one step closer to fruition this week, as California issued permits for breaching the four dams on the Klamath River.
The State Water Resources Control Board issued a Clean Water Act certification and environmental assessment for the proposal to remove three dams in Northern California and one in southern Oregon.
“Decades in the making, this historic and comprehensive project will help restore native fish populations, and improve water quality in the Klamath Basin,” board Chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel said in a statement.
At issue are four dams on the Klamath River, which snakes from southern Oregon through a rugged and remote part of Northern California to the Pacific Ocean.
The river is the second largest in California, and it is home to multiple tribes that have relied on its salmon runs for millennia. Those runs have dwindled significantly due to a variety of factors including climate change and the river’s four downstream dams.
After years of lobbying and pressure, the four hydropower dams — Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, J.C. Boyle and the largest, Iron Gate — are set to be removed after their operator, PacifiCorp, concluded the dams no longer made financial sense; they produce very little power, and relicensing them with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would likely be costly because fish mitigation would be required (Greenwire, March 13, 2017).
PacifiCorp is seeking to transfer the dams’ license to the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corp. It says breaching the dams could begin in 2022, and FERC could vote on the transfer as soon as this spring.
The local tribes on the river cheered this week’s announcement from the State Water Resources Control Board as the clearing of a key hurdle.
“This represents another milestone in our decades long effort to remove dams and restore our fishery,” said Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, in a statement. “Working with PacifiCorp, we have found a way to remove dams, restore our river, and dramatically improve water quality.”
Nevertheless, the roughly $450 million dam removal project remains controversial in the region, one of the most conservative areas of California. In particular, landowners along the river and the reservoirs behind the dams say their property values will plummet (Climatewire, March 30).
Other supporters of dams in the West, including in Congress, have raised concerns about the precedent the project would set.
KLAMATH, Calif. — The second-largest river in California has sustained Native American tribes with plentiful salmon for millennia, provided upstream farmers with irrigation water for generations and served as a haven for retirees who built dream homes along its banks.
With so many competing demands, the Klamath River has come to symbolize a larger struggle over the increasingly precious water resources of the U.S. West, and who has the biggest claim to them.
Now, plans to demolish four hydroelectric dams on the river’s lower reaches to save salmon — the largest such demolition project in U.S. history — have placed those competing interests in stark relief. Each group with a stake — tribes, farmers, ranchers, homeowners and conservationists — sees its identity in the Klamath and ties its future to the dams in deeply personal terms.
“We are saving salmon country, and we’re doing it through reclaiming the West,” said Amy Cordalis, a Yurok tribal attorney fighting for dam removal. “We are bringing the salmon home.”
The project, estimated at nearly $450 million, would reshape the Klamath River and empty giant reservoirs. It could also revive plummeting salmon populations by reopening hundreds of miles of potential habitat that has been blocked for more than a century, bringing relief to a half-dozen tribes spread across hundreds of miles in southern Oregon and northern California.
The proposal fits into a trend toward dam demolition in the U.S. that’s been accelerating as these infrastructure projects age and become less economically viable. The removals are also popular with environmentalists who are fighting for the return of native fish species to rivers long blocked by concrete.
More than 1,700 dams have been dismantled around the U.S. since 2012, according to American Rivers, and the Klamath River project would be the largest by far if it proceeds.
Backers of the dam removal say the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could vote this spring on whether to transfer the dams’ hydroelectric licenses from the current operator, PacifiCorp, to a nonprofit formed to oversee the demolition. Drawdown of the reservoirs behind the dams could begin as early as 2022, according the nonprofit, the Klamath River Renewal Corp.
Opponents, including a group of residents who live around a meandering lake formed by the oldest dam, have vowed to fight the project. Without the dam to create the reservoir, they say, their bucolic waterfront properties will become mudflats. Many say their homes have already lost half their value.
“If we get halfway through and they blow a hole in the dam just to let the water out — to say, ‘Yeah, we done this’ — they can walk away from it. And we have no recourse whatsoever,” said Herman Spannus, whose great-grandfather first ran a ranch in the area in 1856.
The structures at the center of the debate are the four southernmost dams in a string of six constructed in southern Oregon and far northern California beginning in 1918.
They were built solely for power generation. They are not used for irrigation, they are not managed for flood control, and none has “fish ladders,” concrete chutes fish can pass through.
Two dams to the north are not targeted for demolition. Those dams have fish passage and are part of a massive irrigation system that straddles the Oregon-California border and provides water to more than 300 square miles of alfalfa, potatoes, barley and other crops.
Those farmers won’t be directly affected by the demolition but worry it will set a precedent that could eventually endanger the dams they rely on. An earlier, more comprehensive agreement would have given farmers a guaranteed annual minimum of water in exchange for the lower dams’ removal, but it fell apart in Congress. That leaves irrigators on the sidelines now during the most critical water-management decision for the larger Klamath River system in generations.
Farmer Ben DuVal said he’s optimistic the demolition will help restore salmon but also has “some real concerns.”
“Dam removal on this scale is kind of unprecedented,” said DuVal, who inherited his 300-acre farm from his grandfather, a World War II veteran who won the land in a lottery in 1949. “I don’t want to be the one who ends up giving up my livelihood in order to fix a problem down there that was caused by a big experiment.”
The demolition plan is good business for PacifiCorp, which holds the dams’ hydroelectric license. The dams make up less than 2% of its overall power portfolio and are no longer an important part of the regional power picture due to new energy sources such as wind and solar and other factors, it says. In addition, the hydroelectric licenses have expired, and renewing them would require more than $400 million in federally mandated modifications.
Under the plan awaiting federal officials’ approval, $200 million for the demolition and river restoration will come from California and Oregon ratepayers, and $250 million will come from a voter-approved California water bond, with no liability for PacifiCorp and a guaranteed cap on its costs.
For the region’s tribes, however, the push to remove the dams is much more than financial calculus.
Salmon were once plentiful in the Klamath River, and the people who have lived alongside it for thousands of years have a powerful connection to the fish. Even now, with numbers of coho salmon and spring and fall chinook in free fall, tribal members name their children after the river and its fish, tattoo their bodies with elaborate images of fish hawks clutching salmon, and return to fishing holes that have been passed down through generations.
“I actually credit a lot of our men and women’s depression to the fact that they fish for days and days and days and days and don’t catch anything,” said Georgiana Gensaw, who is Yurok and lives on the reservation.
“We want to bring salmon home. We want to show off in front of our kids,” she said. “We want to show them how to do it and how to pass that on. And you can’t do that if there’s nothing in your net.”
Coho salmon from the Klamath River are listed as threatened under federal and California law, and their population in the river has fallen anywhere from 52% to 95%. Spring chinook, once the Klamath Basin’s largest run, has dwindled by 98%.
Fall chinook, the last to persist in any significant numbers, have been so meager in the past few years that the Yurok canceled fishing for the first time in the tribe’s memory. In 2017, they bought fish at a grocery store for their annual salmon festival.
Tribal members see a rejection of their entire way of life in the opposition to dam removal.
“It ain’t about how much they love those dams. It ain’t about that. It’s about Indians having any say or having any power or having anything kind of go our way (that) is a danger to American ideals. We’re supposed to be gone. We’re not supposed to be here,” said Chook-Chook Hillman, a Karuk Indian whose 10-year-old son wrote a rap song about damage to tribal traditions titled “Dry Your Eyes.”
But homeowners around the biggest reservoir, Copco Lake, say it’s not so simple — and they, too, feel a strong sense of place in the homes they built decades ago, with no idea the dams could ever come down and drain the man-made lake. Their property values have plunged.
“The real estate people are not anxious to take listings here because it’s the rumors there all the time,” said Tom Rickard, who had to take the retirement home he and his wife built 20 years ago off the market last summer when it didn’t sell.
“You hear people from Los Angeles, the Bay Area, all over the place, and they keep asking, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to the dams?’”
Other residents say removing the dams will mean losing an easily accessible water source for fighting wildfires. Voters in three counties who would be affected by dam removal voted against it in a non-binding question that demolition advocates say was an “opinion poll.”
“Does it really fix the fish equation just by removing the dams? I haven’t seen anything that tells me this is foolproof and we’re not going to have any problems,” said Siskiyou County Supervisor Michael Kobseff.
Even demolition advocates say dam removal, while critical, won’t be enough on its own to restore the salmon.
Salmon face deteriorating ocean conditions due to climate change, and the many tributaries that feed into the Klamath River — critical spawning habitat for returning salmon — are degraded. Some ranchers who graze cattle along those tributaries are working with environmentalists, but were stung when the earlier agreement among farmers, ranchers and tribes fell apart.
Dam removal “is such a small piece of the restoration of the entire basin,” said Becky Hyde, who runs a cattle ranch near Beatty, Oregon, with her husband.
“The pieces of what would bring stability to the entire basin and the agricultural community are gone — and we’re supposed to be cheerleading for dam removal,” she said. “This is not good enough.”
Tapping into 35 years of satellite imagery, researchers at Oregon State University have dramatically enlarged the database regarding how climate change is affecting kelps, near-shore seaweeds that provide food and shelter for fish and protect coastlines from wave damage.
And the Landsat pictures paved the way to some surprising findings: A summer of warm water isn’t automatically bad news for kelps, and large winter waves aren’t either.
The study was published in Ecology.
“Kelps are fundamentally cold-water species, thus climate change is a problem for them, and worldwide we’re losing a lot of them,” said the study’s corresponding author, Sara Hamilton, a marine biologist pursuing her Ph.D. at OSU. “We’re beginning to see evidence of that happening here on the Pacific coast of North America, especially Northern California.”
The Landsat program is a joint effort of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey that has been collecting Earth surface data since 1975 but only recently has been used for kelp monitoring.
The OSU research was the first to use Landsat data to study bull kelp, large seaweeds that grow in “forests” that form canopies in shallow ocean water. There are about 30 genera of them, and while they look like plants, they’re actually heterokonts, related to algae.
“Taking technology from other fields and bringing it into the marine sciences to improve our work is really exciting,” Hamilton said. “A 35-year dataset in marine biology is really hard to find. It’s usually hard to do marine work – it’s expensive, you need highly trained divers, and it’s dangerous. But we need long-term data to understand climate change and how it impacts populations. This was an exponential increase in the amount of information available about kelp forests in Oregon.”
In 2014, a marine heat wave led to a boom in purple sea urchins whose grazing has been pummeling populations of Nereocystis luetkeana, commonly known as bull kelp, off the Northern California shore ever since.
“But we actually didn’t find evidence of loss in bull kelp populations post-2014 in Oregon even though we are right across the border,” Hamilton said. “Our findings challenge the picture that’s been making the rounds in the news and points to the need for more research, because we really don’t understand kelp very well.”
Off the Oregon Coast, most kelp grows in the southern one-third of the state, the majority of it spread among five distinct reefs.
Kelp data teased from decades of Landsat imagery show that canopy area can vary dramatically from year to year, and that long-term population trends vary from reef to reef. One reef, the Rogue, near Gold Beach, showed a greater population in 2018, the last year of the analysis, than at any point in the last 35 years.
“For the years we surveyed, three of the five reefs remained within historically normal population levels,” Hamilton said. “Another one has had low populations for the past 15 years, and the fifth has shifted to somewhat smaller, less variable populations over the last two decades.”
Past, extensive research on a perennial kelp species, Macrocystis pyrifera, has suggested that high waves in winter have a negative impact on kelp population, but the current study suggested the opposite for bull kelp, an annual.
“An association between bigger waves and more kelp is 100 percent outside the basic idea of what influences kelp,” Hamilton said. “Our study shows that if you change one species, change one geographic area, you get a whole new set of factors emerging.”
Hamilton takes pains to point out that while kelp forests can be dazzlingly beautiful, that’s not the main reason marine biologists are interested in them.
“We don’t study them because they’re pretty and we like diving in them, even though they are pretty and we do like diving in them,” she said. “Kelp forests are important to the ecosystem and to the human communities living on coastlines.”
Kelp forests provide ecosystem services and services to people living nearby, including nursery habitat for juvenile rockfish, urchin fisheries and kelp fisheries.
“People should have access to basic environmental resources that are important to them, and we need to know how these resources are changing and how those changes impact people, often vulnerable people,” Hamilton added.
Kirsten Grorud-Colvert and Bruce Menge in the OSU College of Science collaborated on this study, as did James Watson of the OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Tom Bell of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The National Science Foundation and Oregon State University supported this research.