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Fight over Klamath River dam removal project goes to federal regulators

A proposal necessary for the Klamath River dam removal to proceed has gone to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but some local lawmakers oppose the plan.

Posted: Feb 16, 2021 11:32 AM
Updated: Feb 16, 2021 5:32 PM

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — A renewed push to remove a series of hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River is now in the hands of federal regulators, but some local lawmakers are lobbying in opposition to the project.

The proposal to remove four PacifiCorp dams on the Klamath River has been years in the making, with stakeholders represented by the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) arguing that it would help native fish populations to rebound.

In July of 2020, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a rebuttal to the original proposal — stipulating that PacifiCorp, which wished to be completely excised from the process after transferring ownership, must remain a co-licensee in order to aid in covering any major liability. The decision threatened to scuttle the dam removal project.

By November, the KRRC had announced a workaround. The governors of both Oregon and California signed onto the project as guarantors, part of an agreement that would still allow PacifiCorp to step away.

The KRRC said last week that this new agreement has been filed with FERC.

"While we are steadfastly working toward the goal of dam removal in 2023, we underscore that our project is subject to decisions and processes outside our control, such as the timeline for FERC to undertake various actions associated with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)," the KRRC said in a statement. "We, like our supporters, are eager to see the river run free and salmon return to historic habitat above the dams. However, we can assure the public that KRRC is undergoing every required state and federal permitting process to meet the rigorous environmental review, public safety, and public input requirements."

But the project is not without its opponents among local lawmakers. California Congressman Doug LaMalfa has historically opposed the dam removal project. On Tuesday, Oregon Representative E. Werner Reschke added his voice to the opposition — asking the FERC to deny the transfer of license from PacifiCorp to the KRRC.

“Removing the Klamath River dams will cause an untold ecological damage to the river’s fish and other aquatic species for the foreseeable future due to decades of toxic silt built up behind each dam. PacifiCorp understands this risk," Reschke said. "That is why they are pursuing this transfer of hydropower dam ownership to KRRC, so they can avoid the landslide of impending lawsuits caused by the ecological disaster of dam removal from the flushing of these toxins down river."

In his letter to FERC, Rep. Reschke also cited the potential impact to embattled irrigators in the Klamath Basin, saying that dam removal would cause increased flow downstream from Upper Klamath Lake.

Built between 1911 and 1962, the lower Klamath River dams are currently operated by PacifiCorp and have a total generation capacity of 169 megawatts. Efforts to remove the dams date back to the 2010, when farmers, tribes, environmental groups and government agencies all signed on to the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement.

The settlement sought to eventually return the Klamath River to "free-flowing" conditions, allowing fish to pass along the river unhindered by man-made dams.

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