Demolition of Klamath mega-dams comes one step closer


The removal of four mega-dams on the Klamath river in the United States has come a step closer with the announcement of an agreement in principal that won’t need Congressional approval.

The dams have caused serious pollution, and, in 2002, 65,000 adult salmon died in the Klamath in the biggest fish kill in history.

After the dams were constructed, the Klamath was polluted by a cesspool of algae and there was a dangerous level of toxins in the water.


The new agreement in principle has been signed by representatives from the state governments of California and Oregon, the federal government – via the departments of the interior and commerce – and the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp.

Anti-dam protesters had succeeded in obtaining historic restoration accords under which the four dams on the Klamath, which flows through Oregon and California, were due to be demolished in the biggest dam removal in world history.

However, one of the agreements, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which did need Congressional approval, was blocked at committee stage and expired on December 31, 2015.

There were two other documents in the restoration plan: the Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement (KHSA), signed in 2010, and the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement (UKBCA), signed in 2014.

Neither the KHSA nor the UKBCA, which deals specifically with natural resource management, including water rights, expired.

It is the KHSA that will be amended under the new accord, which is currently non-binding.

The four parties to the agreement in principle say they will work together with the more than forty signatories of the KHSA in the coming weeks to develop amendments that would facilitate removal of the Klamath dams.

The target date for signing an amended version of the KHSA is February 29.

The director of the non-profit organisation Klamath Riverkeeper, Konrad Fisher, says removal of the four dams will benefit everyone who depends on the river for jobs, food, recreation, and cultural survival.

“We are encouraged by this alternative path to un-dam the Klamath River by 2020. Moving forward, we will work to ensure that any water sharing agreements protect endangered fish and traditional food sources for tribal members.”

This week’s decision marks a huge victory in the decade-long campaign to un-dam the Klamath, Fisher says.

“Dam removal is the most cost-effective way to achieve legally-mandated water quality improvements, and will save electricity ratepayers a lot of money.”

Under the new agreement in principle, funding provisions that were in the original restoration accords remain: PacfiCorp’s costs will be capped at US$200 million, which has been collected from its ratepayers, and the government of California will use $250 million of state bond money that has already been set aside to help pay for decommissioning.

The amended KHSA will be submitted for consideration through the established processes of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which involve public comment.

If the new accord is approved, PacifiCorp would transfer title of the Klamath river dams to a non-federal entity that would assume liability and take the appropriate steps to decommission and remove the dams in 2020.

Cautious optimism

Fisheries biologist and river activist in the Klamath basin, Nat Pennington (pictured below), says the new agreement in principle is a “huge success”. He’s still cautious, but says he’s feeling more optimistic about the restoration of salmon in the Klamath than ever before. “It’s the best I’ve felt about the fixing of the river in my life.”

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Nat Pennington speaking at the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers in Sarawak, Malaysia, in October 2015.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, Pennington says. “I’ll feel much happier and confident when the dams are actually being demolished. But this is a huge victory.

“PacifiCorp has done a 180-degree turnaround from the stance they had about six years ago. When we started the negotiations, they were completely against dam removal, and now they are aggressively pursuing it.”

The four PacifiCorp dams on the Klamath are authorised for hydroelectric power generation. Regulations require that the dams need to be retrofitted to provide passage for salmon, steelhead, and other fish.

PacificCorp says it would rather decommission the aging dams than pay to retrofit them to meet modern water quality and fish passage standards.

Pennington says he’s fine with the 2020 start date for removal.

“Given that this is potentially the largest ever river restoration project in world history, we really have to make sure we do our due diligence, and research the best possible way to move forward with this project. I feel like we owe it to the world to set a good example.

“If PacificCorp plays it smart, no strings will be attached to the new agreement in principle. People may ask for certain guarantees – in relation to the terms of the KBRA, for instanceand there may be lawsuits if those requests aren’t granted, but, if PacificCorp is motivated to remove its dams, I don’t think any of these things could derail the agreement.”

‘Hard work and collaboration’

The US Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, says the Klamath agreements were the culmination of years of hard work and collaboration across a diverse and committed coalition of parties. “We can’t let that local vision go unfulfilled.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator Kathryn Sullivan said: “The agreement in principle continues the momentum built by those who crafted the original Klamath agreements.

“NOAA considers this the first step along a new path to secure the future of irrigated agriculture and tribal communities, and the fishery.”

Sullivan, who is also assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, said the NOAA would continue to work in close coordination with all the KBRA parties on a comprehensive plan. “Too many people have worked too long to let this historical opportunity slip away.”

Oregon governor Kate Brown said the state was moving forward in the Klamath Basin. “We can’t afford to sit back and wait for another crisis to batter these communities.”

California’s Secretary for Natural Resources, John Laird, said the new accord marked an unprecedented coming together of parties to seek solutions to difficult problems.

“California is committed to the implementation of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, and to continued efforts to achieve a broad settlement of the issues that have plagued the Klamath basin. This is an important first step toward both of those goals.”

The president and CEO of the Pacific Power division of PacifiCorp, Stefan Bird, said PacifiCorp was committed to continuing to work with its partners in the coming weeks and months to advance “this important agreement”.

While the accord focuses primarily on the dam removal portion of the broader pact, it states that the move is an important and necessary first step toward maintaining the broader Klamath settlements.

The states and the US are actively working with all Klamath Basin stakeholders – members of Congress, tribes, farmers, and others – on a comprehensive resolution to restore the basin and advance the recovery of its fisheries, the Department of the Interior said in a statement.

‘The veins of our world’

P1040243Jon-Luke Gensaw, from the Yurok tribe in California, who is just 17 years old, has been an ardent voice in the campaign to un-dam the Klamath.

He, his brother Sammy, and Nat Pennington recently travelled to Sarawak, Malaysia, to attend the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers.

He told delegates: “Our whole culture revolves around the Klamath river, and dams have meant nothing but destruction. Rivers and streams are the veins of our world. When they are flowing naturally and free, the river and its inhabitants are healthy.”

The Yurok is one of four tribes around the Klamath river; the others are the Karuk, the Hoopa, and the Klamath.

Gensaw says he fights to defend the Klamath so that the next generation can live a good life; “so they can practice our culture, and swim and fish in our river, and not get sick because of poor water quality”.

Pennington says the four Klamath dams had a projected power production value of 120 megawatts, but, since their completion, have never produced more than about 60 megawatts at any given time.

Pennington told delegates about the depletion of salmon stocks in the Kalmath river. “They now face extinction,” he said.

After the dam construction, the rivers became stagnant and warm and this created the ideal environment for the growth of algae.

The microcystis aeruginosa algae has been identified in the dam reservoirs and downstream all the way to the Klamath river estuary. The algae secretes microcystin, a potent liver toxin and known tumour promotor.

Pennington says that the amount of microcystin in the Klamath river reaches more than 100 times the level that the World Health Organisation considers allowable for human contact.

“There is a grave effect on the wildlife drinking water from the river, and on children and people’s pets that come into contact with the water coming out of the dams.”

Pennington says corporate accountability campaigns have played an important role in bringing PacifiCorp to its current position. Getting communities involved in monitoring river conditions is also very important, he says.

US removes more dams than it builds

There are more than 40,000 large dams in operation worldwide, and more than three hundred major dams, which are more than 150 metres high.¹

More than 3,700 hydropower mega-dams are under construction or in the pipeline. Building these dams will reduce by a further 21 percent the number of large, free-flowing rivers that remain worldwide.

In the US, more than one thousand dams have been removed to date, including more than two hundred since 2010. It has been shown that fish stocks recover quickly once dams are removed.

Thousands of large dams remain across the country, and there are those who ardently oppose their removal, but, having once led the world in dam construction, the US is now removing more large dams than it is building.

“The reason we are actually able to remove dams in the United States is because of the lessons that we’ve learned from our behaviour as aggressive developers and colonialists,” Pennington said. “That gives us an opportunity to hopefully show how we can turn things around.”

The JC Boyle hydropower dam on the Klamath River is one of four that would be removed under a new plan.Bob J. Galindo wik commons

The John C. Boyle dam on the Klamath. Photo by Bob J. Galindo.

The agreement in principle

List of dams removed in the US in 2014

The International Commission on Large Dams defines large dams as those with a height of 15 metres or more. If dams between 10 and 15 metres high have a crest length of more than 500 metres, a spillway discharge of more than 2,000 cubic metres, or a reservoir volume of more than one million cubic metres, they are also classified as large dams.

The International Journal on Hydropower & Dams defines major dam projects as those fulfilling one or more of the following criteria: a dam height of more than 150 metres, a dam volume of more than 15 million cubic metres, a reservoir volume of more than 25 billion cubic metres, or an installed capacity of more than 1,000 megawatts. (Source)

Updated on 10/2/2016