Saturday, August 13, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California Regulator Advances Historic Dam-Removal Project

The decision by California's public utility regulator will help move forward a plan to demolish four Klamath River dams to help restore endangered salmon populations on the California-Oregon border.

(CN) — The largest dam removal project in U.S. history came one step closer to fruition Thursday with a California regulator’s approval of a plan to transfer ownership licenses for four Klamath River dams.

“Our decision today is another step forward to advance this historic dam removal project,” said Marybel Batjer, president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

The $450 million project will remake California’s second largest river and drain massive reservoirs, opening hundreds of miles of habitat previously closed to salmon and steelhead trout for the last 100 years.

The five-member CPUC unanimously approved transferring four dams on the lower Klamath River from Warren Buffet-backed energy company PacifiCorp to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), a nonprofit that will oversee demolition of the dams.

The state regulator’s decision follows another key milestone achieved in June when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved a revised plan for KRRC to take over the dams.

FERC granted only a partial transfer of the dams last year and required that PacifiCorp stay on as co-owner after finding KRRC had no experience in dam removal and that additional funding might be needed if project costs rise unexpectedly.

Following that decision, multiple stakeholders carved out a new deal in which California and Oregon agreed to serve as partners with KRCC in removing the dams. The states also agreed to create a new $45 million contingency fund, the cost of which will be split evenly between California, Oregon and PacifiCorp if needed. The amended agreement was adopted in November last year, and FERC approved the revised plan on June 17.

The Klamath River is a 257-mile body of water that winds through ecologically diverse terrain spanning the high desert of eastern Oregon to the coastal forests of California. The river at times marks the border between the two western states.

It is the second-largest river in California and one of the most important in terms of providing habitat for anadromous fish. Anadromous fish, such as salmon and steelhead trout, are born in freshwater rivers but spend most of their lives in the ocean before returning to the freshwater streams where they were born to spawn and die.

Native Americans have inhabited the Klamath River Basin for approximately 7,000 years and relied on the large salmon runs for sustenance and various cultural practices. One of those tribes is the Yurok, which occupies a 44-mile stretch of the Klamath River in Del Norte and Humboldt counties in Northern California.

In the early 20th century, the Klamath Reclamation Project and other private entities started building dams on the river to regulate flow, divert water for agriculture and store water for periodic droughts. Six dams were constructed between 1908 and 1962.

The construction of dams limited historic salmon runs that were a consistent feature of the river for thousands of years.

Amy Cordalis, a Yurok Tribe lawyer and member of the tribe, told the CPUC Thursday that dam removal is crucial to restoring the health of the Klamath River and rebuilding the iconic salmon runs.

“The Klamath River has supported the Yurok people as well as other Indigenous cultures since the beginning of time,” Cordalis said. “Our way of life is now at risk due to the combined effects of drought, fish disease and in particular overallocation of water resources at the expense of fisheries, ecosystems and tribal cultures.”

The Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) represents farmers and ranchers who use irrigation water from the Klamath Project. KWUA and Siskiyou County government agencies filed letters opposing the CPUC’s proposal to transfer ownership of the dams.  

In a phone interview, KWUA executive director Paul Simmons said his group does not oppose the original settlement that called for decommissioning dams, but the water users object to the plan for a $45 million contingency fund. Simmons said it could cause utility ratepayers to pay more money for the project than anticipated. The original settlement capped how much PacifiCorp utility customers in Oregon and California would pay at $200 million. The revised deal could cause ratepayers to fork over more money for the project, he said.

“That agreement was modified in November without any conferral with other parties that might be affected,” Simmons said.

KWUA has other concerns about the dam removal project. When endangered fish get to occupy parts of the river previously closed off to them, water users might have to foot the bill for costly new methods to prevent those fish from getting sucked into the Klamath Project’s irrigation delivery system, he said.

Simmons also voiced concern that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Klamath Project, might have to take control of PacifiCorp-owned dams in the Upper Klamath River that are not slated for demolition. If the Bureau absorbs costs associated with those dams — the Keno and Link River dams — it could pass those costs onto water users, he said.

In a statement Thursday, PacifiCorp said it was “pleased” with the CPUC’s decision, adding it “marks another significant step forward for our joint efforts to allow removal of the dams while providing certainty and protections for the company’s electricity customers.”

The next step in advancing the dam removal project is obtaining approval from the Oregon Public Utility Commission, which is scheduled to vote on a proposal to transfer ownership of the dams on July 27.  

KRRC did not immediately return an email and phone call requesting comment Thursday.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.