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A free-flowing Klamath.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Requa, Calif., is not easy to get to, but Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will join Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and California Gov. Jerry Brown there Wednesday. Their trip to the mouth of the Klamath River will be worth the trouble, because the dignitaries and officials of PacificCorp will announce a historic dam removal agreement. The Klamath, the only river besides the Columbia that penetrates both the Cascades and coastal ranges, once again will flow free.

PacifiCorp, the Portland-based utility owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway holding company, reportedly has agreed to remove its four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath. The utility will pass ownership of the dams to a newly formed nonprofit company, which will relieve PacifiCorp of liability for any damage caused by the removal.

Once the dams are gone, fish populations in the river will be restored or enhanced, benefiting Native American tribes in the Klamath Basin and the coastal fishing industry.

The dam removal deal seemed dead when 2015 ended without congressional action to approve a larger Klamath Basin restoration agreement that aimed to resolve disputes among the tribes, irrigators, environmental groups and federal agencies. The agreement had broad support, but some in Congress worried about a domino effect: Once the Klamath dams were gone, they feared, other dams in the Northwest and beyond would be targeted for removal. And without dam removal, support for water- sharing and other elements of the agreement fell away.

But dam removal has acquired momentum of its own. PacifiCorp needs to renew federal licenses for the Klamath dams, a process that begins with state certification under the Clean Water Act. The states and the federal government were sure to require environmental mitigation and fish passage improvements on the dams. The retrofits would be expensive - and meanwhile, the Pacific Northwest is awash in low-cost surplus electricity.

PacifiCorp finds itself in a situation analogous to that of the Eugene Water & Electric Board, which is in the midst of a costly relicensing process for its Carmen-Smith hydroelectric complex on the McKenzie River. At some point, the costs exceed the benefits. PacifiCorp would have resisted dam removal more vigorously five years ago. But today, presented with an opportunity to shed liability for damages related to removal of the dams, letting go of the Klamath River dams looks like a prudent financial decision.

Dam removal can occur without congressional authorization, although it is still resisted by some who fear a precedent. But a financial decision by PacifiCorp is less vulnerable to obstruction than a dam removal plan that relies on political or environmental justifications.

Removing the four dams will not solve all of the Klamath River's problems. Water allocations remain an issue, particularly in drought years.

In the agreement that stalled in Congress, irrigators limited their allocations in exchange for stronger guarantees of supply - a trade-off that may remain within reach. It's likely that there never will be enough water in the Klamath River to meet the needs of all who rely on it. But with the dams no longer impeding fish passage, a balance should become easier to achieve.

A free-flowing Klamath is a development with enough promise to draw some big names all the way to Requa to be part of it.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 6, 2016
Words:541
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