By Adam Spencer / Special to the Triplicate

From Klamath Falls to California’s North Coast, residents and stakeholders of the Klamath Basin met face-to-face at open house meetings this week with leaders of the brand new organization charged with removing four Klamath River dams starting in 2020.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest in this project and that interest ranges from full opposition to unbridled support,” said Mark Bransom, executive director of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, during a meeting Thursday in Eureka. In the 16 weeks Bransom has been on the job, he’s spent 10 weeks in the Basin meeting stakeholders from Chiloquin to Requa.

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation’s creation was mandated by the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, amended and set into motion in April 2016 when it was signed in Requa by the federal government, the states of California and Oregon and PacifiCorp., owner of the dams.

The warm-water reservoirs formed by the four dams to be removed have contributed to the creation of toxic algae blooms that harm fish and make the river dangerous for humans, including the highest levels of toxins ever seen this past summer. Through a process regulated by California and Oregon utility commissions, PacifiCorp determined the cost of retrofitting the dams to meet environmental standards dams were previously grandfathered past — estimated $400 million — was not preferable for power ratepayers otherwise on the hook for $200 million in dam removal costs.

The KHSA was originally signed by stakeholders in 2010 after a decade of negotiations in closed-door rooms between once bitter enemies from across the basin, most often characterized as Native American and non-native salmon advocates on one side and Upper Basin farmers on the other. At that time, the agreement was linked to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, a water-sharing agreement that drew skepticism and was not signed by some stakeholders, including the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Resighini Rancheria, Del Norte County, Siskiyou County and some environmental groups.

From 2010 to 2015, parties to the KBRA and KHSA lobbied unsuccessfully to get Congress to pass the settlement package but now dam removal is on a separate path

“It’s been engineered to be completely independent of Congress, it needs no federal money or congressional approval to happen,” said Dave Bitts, a Eureka-based commercial fisherman and president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation has $450 million in funding for dam removal and restoration available from $200 million in surcharge fees to Pacific Power ratepayers, including millions from Del Norte County residents and $250 million from Proposition 1, a California water bond approved by voters in 2014.

Bransom said KRRC is confident there will be sufficient funding for dam removal and restoration, the largest such project in world history. If the project does run short, some of the dam infrastructure like powerhouses, may remain, but the primary dam removal and restoration work will be funded.

The KRRC’s mission does not include to focus any of the contentious water-sharing agreements that all parties recognize will still need to be worked out.

““We are solely focused on taking possession of the dams and removing the dams once we complete all of the regulatory processes,” Bransom said at Eureka’s open house meeting.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC, is currently reviewing the request from PacifiCorp and KRRC for ownership of the dams to be transferred from power company to “dam removal entity,” the KRRC. Bransom said he believes this transfer order could take place in late 2018 or early 2019.

Dam removal and restoration is expected to create a few hundred direct jobs and around 1,400 indirect jobs during the project, according to the KRRC.

Liabilities of dam removal

The creation of a “dam removal entity” like KRRC was a long sought-after condition for PacifiCorp largely due to the known and unknown liabilities associated with removing four dams ranging from 55 to 100 years old and the 15 million cubic yards of sediment estimated to be lodged behind the dams.

Although the sediment behind the dams has been tested and does not show toxins or contaminants in violation of human health or drinking water standards, there will still be an effect on Klamath fish.

“Just suspended sediment by itself can kill fish as a direct impact,” said Mike Belchik, senior biologist of the Yurok Tribe Fisheries Department.

Belchik likened the the 5-to-9 million cubic yards of sediment expected to erode downstream during dam removal as something that could happen during a natural large flood event.

Dam removal is planned for winter to mimic when a large natural flood event might take place, even though the summer would be logistically easier, Belchik said. And all four dams are to be removed in the same water year to minimize a staggered, drawn-out impact of sediment on fish, Belchik said.

“We’ve seen landslides in current times of two million cubic yards all at once in a winter day, and this will be over a period of time as they draw down the reservoirs, so we don’t think it’s going to be out of the range of abnormal,” Belchik said.

Salmon redds in the mainstem Klamath below Iron Gate dam will be wiped out but fishery experts have seen salmon survive major events by taking refuge in creeks and smaller tributaries.

“We think that overall these salmonids have the evolutionary capacity to handle events like this, it’s built into their DNA and we’re banking on that,” Belchik said.

Some perceived liabilities are myths that Bransom’s team has attempted to dispel.

Despite views to the contrary in some upper basin areas, primarily Siskiyou County, the four dams slated for removal were never managed for flood control or irrigation. Link River Dam, which controls storage and releases from Upper Klamath Lake and regulates flows through the Klamath River, will remain.

Other liabilities include the concern of property owners who believe their reservoir-front property values will plummet when they become riverfront homes, domestic wells that may be affected by dam removal, Native burial sites and fishing villages that may be exposed when the reservoirs are drawn down, and a City of Yreka waterline built below a reservoir’s surface that will be exposed and vulnerable after dam removal.

Dam removal is
only the first step

While dam removal will provide access to over 400 miles of historic spawning habitat that has been blocked for decades, it will not increase the amount of water allocated to Klamath salmon, which experts say is direly needed.

“Dam removal is a necessary but not a sufficient step in a much broader context,” Bransom said.

Bitts, the commercial salmon fishermen and salmon fishermen association president, is confident dam removal alone will help toxic algae issues.

“It’s not going to have much effect on flows, but it should have a major effect on water quality and temperature. because we won’t be baking that water in those shallow desert reservoirs anymore in the way we’ve been doing for 60-70 years, that should help with toxic algae problem,” Bitts said. “The river still goes through a hot desert but it helps that the water will be moving.”

Bitts also still has hope that the collaborative coalition of former foes that came together to strike settlement agreements in recent years will return to finish the job. During the negotiations, Bitts remembers feeling that “This is the way its supposed to be: the people with the strongest interests in the results duke it out and come up with a plan.”

Belchik, the Yurok tribe fisheries biologist, just recently visited the Elwha River where salmon were blocked from using historic spawning grounds until a dam on that river was completely removed in 2012. Elwha salmon returned to historic spawning sites once blocked by the dam much quicker than experts anticipated.

And for Klamath salmon, Belchik said: “They’re going to come back faster than anyone thinks.”