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Big step for the Klamath.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Six weeks ago, it looked as though a decade of negotiations on a water management plan for the Klamath River had led to nothing. Rep. Greg Walden, the Republican who represents the Oregon portion of the Klamath basin in the U.S. House, had introduced a bill to implement an agreement accepted by farmers, government agencies, environmental groups and most of the basin's Native American tribes, but it did not include a provision for the removal of four dams from the river. That was a deal-breaker for many, and the Jan. 1 deadline for approval of the agreement passed.

On Tuesday, however, the dam removal provision resurfaced - not in Congress, but in an agreement among Oregon, California, federal agencies and PacifiCorp, the Portland-based utility that owns the dams. The dams will be decommissioned through the federal relicensing process, not through legislation. With the dams now scheduled to be demolished by 2020, the path could be open for congressional approval of other parts of the Klamath agreement, just as Walden planned.

The four dams generate a maximum of 162 megawatts of electricity, or about 2 percent of PacifiCorp's power. The value of this resource has declined as the price of electricity has gone down, and as the barriers to relicensing have gone up. The tribes, fishermen and environmental groups were certain to demand that the dams be retrofitted for fish passage as a condition of relicensing. Removal began looking like an economical option to PacifiCorp, particularly since a surcharge paid by customers and money from a California water bond will help pay the costs.

Parties with an interest in restoring healthy salmon and steelhead runs to the Klamath - the tribes, commercial and sport fishermen, environmental groups and some government agencies - would never sign on to an agreement that did not include dam removal. Yet Congress balked, fearful of setting a precedent for dam removal elsewhere in the country. With the issue of dam removal now set to be resolved outside the legislative process, Congress should be able to move forward on other parts of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.

In the agreement, farmers who draw from the Klamath River and its tributaries for irrigation have said they would take less water in exchange for assurances of reliable supplies. The tribes, which have senior water rights, have agreed to share water with farmers in exchange for fish habitat restoration and an end to irrigation of some farmland in the Klamath basin. A deal along these lines is the only way to prevent competing users from trying to pour six quarts of water from the Klamath's one-gallon jug, leading to periodic fish kills and irrigation water shortages.

Even in the absence of a broader agreement, dam removal will benefit the river. Natural flows will be restored to 50 miles of the Klamath that are now slack water behind the four dams, and the quality of water in the 190 miles of river below the dams will be improved. The result will be significant improvements in commercial, sport and tribal fisheries.

The breakthrough would probably not have come if changes in the market for electricity had not altered PacifiCorp's cost-benefit calculations for dam relicensing. But the utility and its partners in state and local government deserve credit for recognizing an opportunity, and taking a big step toward resolving the larger conflict over the Klamath River's great but limited resources.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 4, 2016
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