Klamath dam agreement deadline looms; opponents call for end to settlement

Grant Scott-Goforth


A deadline is looming for an agreement that could see dams removed from the Klamath River, while opponents call for the end of the settlement.

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement - a series of proposals for water quality, flows and restoration contingent on the removal of four Klamath River Dams - is set to expire Dec. 31 unless 42 stakeholders extend the agreement until 2014.

Stakeholders approved the agreement in 2010, and included the self-imposed deadline in hopes that Congress would legislate the proposal by the end of this year.

That has not happened, and while stakeholders appear to be largely in favor of extending the agreement, there are vocal opponents who are calling for the end of the KBRA.

The fight over the Klamath Basin goes back more than a decade, with the control of water flowing through four dams operated by PacifiCorp at the center of an intense debate.

The issue is largely split along the lines of fish advocates and tribes on the lower Klamath versus irrigators and farmers in the upper basin, each insisting that their livelihoods depended on more water. After years of negotiation, the KBRA was agreed upon by government agencies, tribes and other interest groups, but did not preclude a host of detractors.

Opponents at several meetings last week included members and representatives of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and several river consultants, who insisted that there are better ways to oversee the removal of dams, ensure the rights of tribes and protect fish and other wildlife in the basin.

The Humboldt County board of supervisors approved the amendment to extend the KBRA on Tuesday. As of press time, the board was one of six stakeholders who approved the extension.

On Wednesday, Nov. 14 the Klamath Basin Coordinating Council - the group of stakeholders that formed the KBRA and has the authority to amend it - met at the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center, where members heard a similar refrain of opposition to the KBRA. Many opposed to the KBRA say that it’s unnecessary because a process already stands in place for dam removal.

Since 2010, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for the river’s four dams has been placed on hold by the state Water Resources Control Board - at PacifiCorp’s request.

Opponents to the KBRA argued that the stakeholders should let FERC force PacifiCorp to remove the dams.

American Rivers California Regional director Steve Rothert said that expectation is unrealistic.

"FERC has never required a dam removal agreement against the wishes of the dam owners," he said. American Rivers specializes in relicensing processes, and Rothert said the organization is responsible for more dam removals than any other group in the country.

"I have very little confidence that FERC would assert the authority it says it has regarding decommissioning," he said.

Yurok Tribe executive director Troy Fletcher also stated that FERC would never order the removal of the Klamath dams without the agreement.

"We think there’s a good chance of that if our opponents get their way," he said, adding that even if that decision was reached, the process would take decades of legal battles.

"It’s a waste of those resources," Fletcher said. "We have a settlement the company agreed to that leads to dam removal."

Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District commissioner Pat Higgins said the KBRA threatens fish species by giving preference to upper basin farmers, and expressed outrage at the agreement.

"I can’t understand how the county signed onto it," he said during public comment.

Klamath River advocate Felice Pace echoed the concern, saying that water delivery guarantees favored irrigators upstream and that fish downstream would suffer.

Rothert said that even if the FERC process achieved dam removal, the KBRA contains restoration, water reliability and water quality plans that would help the basin more than anything in place now.

He said opponents of the settlement overlook the fact that many scientists believe fish stand a worse chance of recovery if they swim back up the Klamath into conditions as they exist today.

Karuk Tribe Klamath coordinator Craig Tucker described the KBRA as a "bold initiative."

"A handful of detractors on the coast act like we’re somehow surrendering," he said. Tucker said in Siskiyou County it’s the farmers and irrigators who feel like the tribes are getting all the benefits of the agreement.

"That gives me confidence that the reality is in the middle," Tucker said.

Hoopa Tribal councilwoman Hayley Hutt, in addition to expressing concerns about water flows to support lower Klamath fish, said that the KBRA would infringe on the rights of the Hoopa Valley Tribe.

Hutt said that the United States agrees that it will not assert tribal water or fishing rights in a manner that would interfere with the diversion of water for the irrigators authorized by the KBRA.

She called Hoopa water rights the "linchpin of success" in protecting Trinity and Klamath water, and called for the group to let the KBRA expire and renegotiate a settlement.

Tucker said the Karuk Tribe sees the KBRA as an expansion of tribal rights. With the KBRA in place, the Karuk Tribe would have a larger role in flow control, restoration of the basin and the jobs associated with those efforts, Tucker said.

He said the federal government has an obligation to act in the interest of tribes. Hoopa has the right to a fishery on the Trinity River, and if something happens to put that fishery in peril, Hoopa can call on the government to step in on its behalf.

When tribes disagree on something, the government is forced to choose a side, Tucker said. In the case of the KBRA, it picked the side of the stakeholder tribes. He said that doesn’t take away the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s right to claim the government isn’t acting on its behalf.

Others at Wednesday’s meeting called for more transparency during the KBRA process.

"I don’t think we want to disband this collaborative process," Environmental Protection Information Center conservation director Andrew Orahoske said. "We do need to have a more open process. Rather than close doors when important decisions are made, I ask that you open the door."

Pace agreed and asked for the agreement to be renegotiated.

"It’s a big reason for my opposition to this," he said. "We don’t have democratic process."

Fifth district supervisor Ryan Sundberg, who voted in favor of extending the agreement on Tuesday, Nov. 13, asked KBCC groups to return at a future meeting with the research that led them to believe that the KBRA is the best solution for the basin.

"More meetings and more information is better for the public," Sundberg said, with the consent of other stakeholders. Sundberg said he remained fairly confident that the agreement would be extended.

"I haven’t heard anyone who doesn’t want to give it more time and feel out the new Congress," he said.

Fletcher said collaboration and compromise were key to a divided Klamath Basin.

"Nobody - nobody - can stand far to the left or far to the right and expect progress here," he said.

Tucker said that most of the people in the lower Klamath Basin have the same goal: dam removal.

"It’s a real shame because I know that the Hoopa tribal members want the river fixed," Tucker said. "It’s really a debate over strategy. We sit here fighting with each other. Who wins when we do that? PacifiCorp."

Grant Scott-Goforth can be reached at 441-0514 or gscott-goforth@times-standard.com.