County Supervisor Roger Gitlin prefaced a debate on Klamath River dam removal by stating it would address the project's potential of creating problems at the Crescent City Harbor.
But the side opposing efforts to demolish the dams and drain the reservoirs to improve habitat quality for salmon said he wasn't going to talk about silt or sediment.
"The Klamath River has declining salmon stocks over perhaps at least the last 25 years, perhaps even longer, and at this point, the only potential problem we've addressed, or we're currently addressing is the fact that perhaps the dams are creating this decline in salmon populations," said Samuel Strait at Gitlin's April 3 town hall meeting. "I'd like to offer a different perspective on that topic... when you start with only one tiny piece of the puzzle, that is dam removal, perhaps you're not exactly looking at the multi-faceted part of the problem."
Strait, a local resident who has written two Coastal Voices pieces in the Triplicate opposing the Klamath River Renewal Corporation's efforts to remove the four hydroelectric dams, faced the nonprofit corporation's technical consultant, Scott Wright, an engineer with River Design Group.
Wright said he has been involved with 20 dam removal projects and he agreed with Strait that dam removal is only "one piece of a larger puzzle." PacifiCorp., which owns the J.C. Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2 and Iron Gate dams, had a 50-year license to operate the dams, which expired in 2006, Wright said. Before that license expired, the utility looked at their options and determined what would be best for their ratepayers, he said.
"Their best options were to allow the dams to be removed and get out of that particular project," Wright said. "If they had went into a relicensing process and actually relicensed and had to bring the dams up to current requirements, they could be (spending) pretty much an endless amount of money.
“We knew for sure it was going to be over $400 million and significantly more that would be passed on to the ratepayers through the Public Utilities Commission,” Wright said. “So ratepayers would pay for that, not necessarily PacifiCorp."
KRRC and PacifiCorp representatives in January and February gave presentations before the Crescent City Harbor District, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and the Crescent City Council, seeking input on a State Water Quality Resources Board draft environmental impact report on the dams' removal.
The draft EIR was created in response to KRRC's request for a Water Act Section 401 certification for the removal of the Copco 1 and 2 and Iron Gate dams in California. It addressed the amount of sediment and silt that would wash down the Klamath River when the dams are removed, stating that by 2020 an estimated 14.6 million tons of sediment would be stored in the JC Boyle, Copco No. 1 and Iron Gate reservoirs.
The report predicted that about 5.8 million tons of material would be washed downstream to the ocean. About 4 million tons would be fine sediment, Wright said. It would have the consistency of talcum powder, and 1.8 million tons would be sand and larger sediment, according to the DEIR.
KRRC expects to start drawing down the reservoirs and begin removing the dams in January 2021.
Both the Crescent City Council and Crescent City Harbor District drafted letters to the water board supporting dam removal efforts. However the Del Norte Board of Supervisors wrote a letter to the water board expressing concerns about potential sediment impacts to the Crescent City Harbor.
The Board of Supervisors also voted 4-1 on March 12 in favor of a letter to KRRC requesting mitigation dollars should the project result in excessive silt at the harbor and negatively impact the local recreational salmon fishery. Gitlin voted no on the letter to KRRC.
At each presentation KRRC representatives said funding for the project would come from $200 million in surcharges PacifiCorp customers are paying. Those surcharges are expected to expire this year and the funding from PacifiCorp is capped at $200 million.
California has also contributed $250 million in voter-approved water bond dollars to the dam removal efforts. According to KRRC's definite plan, which is currently being reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the dam removal project estimated cost totals $398 million.
At the April 3 town hall meeting, Gitlin said he felt the Board of Supervisors' request to KRRC for mitigation dollars was premature. The entrance to the harbor already needs to be dredged, Gitlin said, asking if how would it be determined silt washed downstream as a result of the dam removal project would aggravate the already-existing sediment issues at the port.
"I do have a certain healthy skepticism that this siltage will find its way into the harbor 19 miles away," Gitlin said. "Why not down in Orick? Why not out into the ocean? Why not in Japan where this siltage will be dispersed over a very large ocean?"
Wright noted the dam removal project is occurring about 200 miles upstream from the ocean. KRRC does have mitigation measures in place to address potential problems, he said, and has gone on record stating that it would work with the Crescent City harbormaster to make sure the port doesn't "get impacted in a significant way."
The Klamath's tributaries, including the Scott, Shasta and Trinity rivers generate about 4 to 10 million tons of sediment on a typical year, Wright said. The dam removal project would contribute about 2 million tons of sediment.
"It's a small amount compared to what all the other tributaries are putting into the river already," he said.
Much of the material in the reservoirs is decayed algae with a high water content with the consistency of talcum powder, Wright said, which would have a large dispersal area once it reaches the ocean.
Strait countered Wright's statement that KRRC would help mitigate potential impacts to the Crescent City Harbor and other areas as a result of the dam removal project by stating that the nonprofit is going to "disappear at some point." He questioned if the mitigations will be in place when KRRC does "disappear."
"If not, where are they going to come from?" Strait asked. "Out of the harbor's budget and we all know the harbor isn't particularly in great financial shape."
Strait repeated his main concern with the dam removal project wasn't sediment.
"My main concern is will restoration happen in any reasonable amount of time," he said, "and how long do we have to wait before we decide that dam removal is a very insignificant part of the problem and there are many other factors of this problem that we haven't even addressed. That may provide a significantly greater impact to the salmon populations that are entering the Klamath River."
Wright answered Strait by bringing up previous dam removal projects on the Rogue River in Oregon. Fishing guides have provided anecdotal information that salmon populations have improved on the Rogue River, he said.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, after sampling for the number of spawning redds, or nests, also noted improvements in numbers, according to Wright.
Wright also noted that coastal erosion has been documented up and down the West Coast. He noted a lack of material as a result of sediment building up in the area around the reservoirs upstream contributes to a "lack of material along the beachfront and so it starts eating into the banks of the sea."
"In fact at your Board of Supervisors meeting, we had some discussion about how there's some holes out in the ocean just outside the area here that could use some material," Wright said.
Strait said he read all of the anecdotal reports Wright referred to as well as a recent report from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife indicating that returning salmon to the Rogue River are 60 percent of what they were in 2008. The counting of redds in the "new zone" that was created through dam removal on the Rogue River "are very difficult to count and assert as being actual reinfestations of salmon populations in those parts of the river," Strait said.
"I think there's a lot of room for questions in respect to even the restoration on the Rogue River," Strait said. "I believe now there's eight dams that have been removed from the Rogue River, the first one in 2008. It's been 11 years since that time that the first dam was removed and my information says the restoration has been meagre at the very best."
As for dam removal on the Klamath River, Strait said the Bureau of Reclamation conducted studies for the federal government on the proposed project between 2006 and 2011. In 2011, the U.S. Department of the Interior had hired a science advisor and a science integrity officer who characterized the science behind dam removal as "widely speculative and biased," Strait said. The current secretary of the interior, however, approved the science but it failed to meet with Congress's approval, Strait said. He noted there have been a series of efforts to establish a water agreement between all users of the Klamath River, none of which were successful, until KRRC was established.
Wright noted the advisor who labeled the science behind dam removal as widely speculative and biased got zero traction in his assertions. Other scientists and the government investigated his allegations, determined they were unfounded and efforts to remove the Klamath River dams proceeded, Wright said.
"You would think if this was all even made up that some scientists would jump on board with this guy but I don't see them jumping on board with him," Wright said. "My point being, we do dam removals all around the West Coast, the East Coast. We know what the effects are and it's very clear that dam removal is a good thing to do for the restoration of river health."
The J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate dams are four of six dams on the Klamath River. The other two, the Keno and Link River dams in Oregon will continue to be operated by the Bureau of Reclamation for water management and irrigation.
KRRC is currently petitioning the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to transfer the hydroelectric license for the four dams slated for removal from PacifiCorp to KRRC. The nonprofit will then ask FERC to grant their surrender of that hydroelectric license, enabling the dam removal project to proceed.
For more information about the project, visit www.klamathrenewal.org/definite-plan.