The Klamath River Renewal Corporation, created for the sole purpose of removing four Klamath dams that block fish passage and impair river water quality, has been holding meetings in small towns across the basin this week. Two main announcements stand out: the dam removal target date is now 2021; and contractors get your pens ready, request for proposals for dam removal and restoration-related work will be coming out in the next few months.
When stakeholders, including federal regulators, the states of California and Oregon, tribes and interest groups started to work towards dam removal in the early 2000s, the target date had always been 2020. From 2010 to 2016, stakeholders lobbied Congress to pass a bill tying Klamath dam removal to a water settlement agreement that would have provided millions of federal dollars for river restoration and guaranteed water to in-stream use for fishery interests and tribes and guaranteed water for agriculture. Congress declined to pass this bill and now dam removal is pushing ahead on its own.
“Everything had to line up perfectly” to stick with a 2020 dam removal timeline, said Dave Meurer, community liaison for the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, at a meeting held Wednesday in Klamath. “And for a huge project, often things don’t line up perfectly, so there’s been some slippage but we feel very comfortable about 2021.”
One particularly unique challenge is persuading the regulator that licenses hydroelectric dams, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), to transfer ownership of the dams to an entity like the KRRC, whose sole mission is to remove the dams, Meurer said.
FERC oversees ownership transfers from power utility to power utility with some regularity but the regulators are concerned about who will be on the hook for long-term liabilities associated with the dams once KRRC dissolves itself as planned, Meurer said.
The KRRC is proposing a very large insurance product to cover the liabilities, but the territory is new to FERC and more time is needed to get the regulator on board with transferring dam ownership, Meurer said.
Remove dams, bring work
Meanwhile, the KRRC is marching forward lining up contractors for dam removal and associated restoration work, especially on the valleys and hill-slopes currently underwater in the reservoirs that will need revegetation.
“These areas are huge, thousands of acres, so there is a lot of seed that has to be captured and propagated so we can have materials to cover all of this area, trying to create a native crop of seed,” said Scott Wright, RDG project manager for the Klamath dam removal project. Wright has worked on elements of the Klamath dam removal project since 2009 and has worked on more than 20 dam removals across the Pacific Northwest.
AECOM, River Design Group (RDG) and CDM Smith are the main contractors that will be performing dam removal and restoration of former reservoir sites, leaving roads and river access points better than they were before, said Wright.
Steve Madrone, candidate for Humboldt County 5th District Supervisor, urged KRRC to enter into cooperative agreements with the tribes to ensure tribal members and local residents of the Klamath Basin will benefit from jobs created by the project.
“RFPs are not perfect and there’s really no guarantee there at all that the tribes would end up getting selected through the prime contractor working with the tribes as a subcontractor to do specific components,” said Madrone, adding he appreciated the point-rank system contractors will use to give job preference to tribal members and locals described by KRRC, but that there was no guarantee.
Mike Belchik, senior biologist with the Yurok Tribe Fisheries Department, said the tribe has already been and will continue to be very proactive in getting tribal people involved with work generated by the project.
“Anything we can do to stimulate the local economy, we will be doing that,” Wright said.
Getting the dams out is expected to also have a long-term effect on the regional economy by improving fish runs in the Klamath. Dam removal will increase spawning habitat, opening up areas above the dams that have been inaccessible to salmon and steelhead for decades, as well as help improve water quality. A long term goal that starts with dam removal is bringing back the Klamath’s once-abundant spring salmon run that has been extinct since 1910, Belchik said.
“We’re trying to rebuild more diverse runs so there will be more fishing opportunities year-round instead of so much reliance on the fall run. It’s pretty ambitious. We’re going to take a run that’s been extinct for more than a hundred years and bring it back,” Belchik said. “That’s what the ambition is here.”
The sediment slug
Drawdown of the four reservoirs would take place primarily in January and February 2021, potentially extending into March, bringing with it a large “slug” of sediment flushing down river. Although contractors and engineers would prefer to work on dam removal projects when rivers are low in the summer or fall, Belchik said the Yurok Tribe vetoed that proposal in favor of a winter reservoir drawdown to mimic sediment that naturally occurs during high winter flows.
“Everything that lives in the river has a plan to deal with floods and sediment in the winter. But if you run that down in June or July you’re going to wreak havoc on the river,” Belchik said.
“(Winter is) when we have the most amount of flow in the system so we can dilute the material and also take out as much of the material as possible at one time,” Wright said.
Sediment released in the winter will still impact fish, but they’re expected to be able to overcome the blow.
“All the fishery folks are saying it’s worth it, short-term pain, long-term gain, because conditions are really bad right now,” Meurer said.
Wright remarked on mining impacts around the turn of the century that salmon were able to survive.
“(Miners) would literally turn those rivers chocolate brown, filled with sediment, all year long, for the two or three years that they would be mining. If you see pictures from Happy Camp from that time, it boggles your mind that we still have fish today,” Wright said.
Heavy metal-laden sediment? Only naturally
One consistent dam-removal concern has been the potential impact to the river of the estimated 15 million cubic yards of sediment lodged behind the dams. Core sampling has shown these sediments do not contain toxins or pollutants above levels of concern, but Kagat McQuillen, a Yurok Tribal member and natural resource department worker of the Tolowa Dee-Ni’ Nation, asked which metals or pollutants were close to the thresholds.
Of the roughly six heavy metals tested, the one that was at or just above the threshold was arsenic, found in J.C. Boyle and the upper reservoir Wright said. “But when you look at it in compared to the background levels, the background levels are elevated.”
Klamath dam context
The possible removal of four Klamath dams started to be discussed with the sunset of Pacific Power’s 50-year license to operate the dams in 2006. To renew the license to operate the dams, Pacific Power was on the hook to comply with environmental laws passed since the 50-year license was issued, such as creating fish passage for salmon species on the Endangered Species List and fixing algae and warm-water problems that caused reservoirs to discharge polluted water in violation of the Clean Water Act.
Estimates showed costs to retrofit the dams to meet environmental standards surpassed the cost of removing the dams, so California and Oregon utility commissions have opted for Pacific Power to pursue dam removal in the interest of saving their customers money.
Pacific Power — and its customers — have a fixed amount of $200 million to contribute for Klamath dam removal, with $16 million coming from California customers and $184 million from Oregon customers. Pacific Power customers in Del Norte County make up more than 27 percent of the power company’s California ratepayers, meaning the Klamath Dam Removal surcharge seen on Del Norte customers’ bill will ultimately contribute a total of around $4.3 million of Pacific Power’s contribution for the project. Up to an additional $250 million will be funded by Prop 1, California’s water bond approved by voters in 2014.
More informational meetings coming up
The KRRC is holding two more additional meetings in the Klamath Basin:
April 23, Chiloquin, OR
501 Chiloquin Blvd.
April 24, Happy Camp
Old Headway Building
64101 Second Ave.