[TC: Originally written for a fly fishing magazine which never published it, the article below outlines the Klamath River dam removal issue - one of the most contentious water issues in the West. In light of today's announcement of a non-binding dam removal agreement, I'm posting it here for the Undergrounders' enlightenment]

Will the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement Restore Salmon Populations, or Simply Benefit Upper Klamath Irrigators?

For more than a decade, Northern California/Oregon’s Klamath River has been ground zero in the salmon wars: a vicious legal and public relations battleground that’s pitted commercial fishermen, irrigators, big ag, tribal interests, environmental groups and an electrical utility against each another.

Fought amidst a volley of lawsuits, threats, PR campaigns and high-end political intervention, the results haven’t been pretty; salmon populations continue to dwindle, and in 2006 and 2007, plummeting salmon populations in the Klamath and Sacramento Rivers forced a large-scale closure of the commercial salmon fishery along the West Coast.

Against this backdrop, some of the west’s most gripping water wars have played out – largely to nobody’s advantage.

In 2001, 1/3 of the water headed for irrigators was put back in the river to protect endangered suckers, salmon and other species.

Mass protests and civil disobedience reigned in the small, largely agricultural communities along the Klamath, including threats and a largely symbolic “Bucket Brigade” that actually moved water from the river to irrigation ditches via a human chain.

An influx of extreme private property rights groups followed, and the area became the center ring in one of the biggest water circuses the west’s ever seen.

Massive Fish Kill Ignites Controversy Over Cheney’s Role, Future of Salmon

In 2002 – after direct intervention by the Bush administration and Vice President Cheney – water again flowed to irrigators, which lead to one of the biggest salmon kills in history (estimates range from 30,000 dead salmon to 80,000).

Shortly thereafter, 28 organizations came together, looking for a way out of the endless web of lawsuits. After years of negotiation – and the ejection of two of the groups who refused to sign a working framework – the group released the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement – a proposal aimed at restoring the Klamath’s troubled salmon populations and ending the Klamath’s water wars.

At stake is the future of the Klamath’s faltering salmon runs, which have been plagued by habitat loss (removing PacifiCorp’s four dams would open 300 miles of spawning habitat), agricultural water diversions, poor water quality, poor returns due to ocean conditions, and overfishing.

The agreement can’t force the removal of the lower four aging PacifiCorp dams – the dams are currently in the midst of a federal relicensing process – but it is dependent on dam removal before it’s put into effect.

After the restoration agreement was released, participants seemed stunned by the wave of protest pouring forth from groups on both sides of the issue, and PacifiCorp – the Warren Buffet-owned electrical utility who must agree to remove its four Klamath River dams or the agreement is a bust – continued playing its cards close to its chest.

Proponents – including diverse groups like Trout Unlimited, CalTrout, upper Klamath irrigators and several nearby native American tribes – say the restoration agreement charts a way forward after years of lawsuits.

Steve Rothert of American Rivers said “By releasing the proposed Basin Restoration Agreement today, we’re saying that there is a better way, and that ongoing environmental degradation is no longer an option.”

Opponents Decry Pork, Priorities

Opponents point to “pork” projects unrelated to salmon recovery (the Klamath tribe wants $21 million to purchase lands for a new reservation), and Felice Pace – longtime Klamath activist, author of the Klam blog water-related Web site and critic of the agreement – argues that the flows mandated in the agreement won’t result in salmon recovery.

“According to independent scientists who have reviewed the flow plan, the flows that would result from this agreement and which would be capped by federal legislation will not lead to Salmon Recovery.”

Pace adds “there are no provisions that will make it possible to adequately address climate change impacts.”

Pace has a point; minimum flows in dry years would fall below those recommended by the biological opinion as being necessary for salmon recovery, and when I asked one of the leading figures in the negotiations about the implications of climate change, he offered a not-very-helpful response about a paragraph in the agreement “acknowledging the potential for climate change.”

Another biologist who was part of the negotiations – and supports the accord – admits to some concern about the water available to salmon in wet years, when recovery should be aided by high recruitment.

In low-flow years, salmon populations fall off, but high-flow years should allow populations to recover quickly. However, with upstream irrigators receiving a lot of water in high-flow years, populations won’t “bounce back” like they should.

Pace also suggests that this agreement – which provides guaranteed flows and heavily subsidized power to irrigators – isn’t necessary. Saying that PacifiCorp can’t meet water quality standards (the Klamath River often runs pea green due to toxic algae blooms in the summer), so they can’t relicense the dams.

Local Politics Flare Up

Meanwhile, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors held a series of public meetings, on dam removal, and with the help of a lot of questionable scare tactics via the Underground’s old friend Supervisor Marcia Armstrong – who alleged dangerous levels of dioxin in the sediment behind the dam when tests suggested only trace amounts – the Board passed a resolution opposing dam removal.

While the county has some legitimate concerns about the loss of property taxes, the heavily timber-and-extractive-industry leaning board (typically) failed to consider the economic benefits to the county of healthy salmon and steelhead fisheries.

Fisheries advocate CalTrout commissioned a study which suggested a salmon was worth $200 to the state economy, and given the Klamath’s history as the third most-productive salmon river on the West Coast, the economic benefits to sport and commercial fisheries could be substantial.

Tribes Split

While the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath tribes support the agreement, the Hoopa tribe have refused to sign.

In a Sacramento Bee opinion piece, Hoopa Reservation Chairman Clifford Lyle Marshall argued that “Water rights are upside down in the agreement. The agreement guarantees water for Bureau of Reclamation project irrigators and refuge users, while Hoopa and Yurok senior fishing rights, dating back to 1855 and 1864, are not guaranteed. The agreement puts all the drought-year risks on the fish.”

Craig Tucker – the Klamath Coordinator for the Karuk tribe and longtime proponent of dam removal on the Klamath – wrote a sharply worded opinion piece in the Eureka Times-Standard.

He supported the deal with “The proposed deal addresses the need for increased river flows for fish, dependable power and irrigation diversions for agriculture, and funding to restore fish habitat,” then castigated opponents: “The reality is that many critics of the deal simply hate the other side more than they love their own self-interests.”

The estimated costs of the settlement agreement have been estimated a $1 billion (over ten years).

And frankly, all this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Before agreeing to any removal, PacifiCorp will likely insist someone else assume the risks and costs of dam removal, which would be the largest dam removal project in history [ed: this appears to be true, at least given the reports coming out about the agreement]

This stance belies the fact that the utility benefited from the power produced by the dams for decades, only to try and dump the liabilities associated with them on taxpayers.

Unresolved Water Quality Issues

A hidden issue in all this is the Klamath’s horrible water quality – the product of toxic algae blooms behind the dams in Iron Gate and Copco Lakes.

During the late summer, the Klamath actually turns green, and in places human and pet contact with the river is discouraged. Residents and tribal members offer up stories of rashes that won’t go away after contact with water, and that level of water quality has to have an effect on endangered species.

Felice Pace suggests that these water quality issues mean PacifiCorp can’t get their dams relicensed, and thus, a sweetheart deal for irrigators (the settlement agreement) isn’t necessary.

With rumors of federal/state/PacifiCorp negotiations in the works, the next chapter in the Klamath’s history remains to be written.