As construction workers prepare to punch through the Elwha and Condit dams in Washington state, the federal government is preparing to release a series of major environmental and economic studies on an even more dramatic plan to remove four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California.
The Department of the Interior reports it will release on Sept. 22 a draft Environmental Impact Statement and a crucial, detailed plan and cost estimate for several dam removal scenarios for the Klamath Basin.
The Klamath River is one of the most important habitats for salmon in the two-state area, providing runs for the imperiled chinook salmon, coho salmon and for steelhead trout. The river used to support the third largest salmon population on the West Coast, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The Department of the Interior’s cost estimate will determine how much money the cash-strapped state of California has to come up with to keep the dam removal deal on track. The dams’ owner, PacifiCorp, has secured $200 million to fund dam removal through a surcharge on rate payers in Oregon and California. The state of California has agreed to fund the remainder of the cost with a bond measure.
The decommissioning of the dams is part of a grand bargain between water users in the Klamath Basin that advocates hope will end decades of animosity and declining water quality in the basin.
In 2010, energy company PacifiCorp signed a legal settlement with farmers, tribes, fishermen and environmental groups, agreeing to pursue a good faith effort to remove four Upper Klamath dams. The dams were built without fish ladders and block migrating salmon from hundreds of miles of their natural habitat.
At the same time, tribes, fisherman and several environmental groups signed another settlement, linked to the first, agreeing to end lawsuits over irrigation diversions and water rights in the basin. They also agreed to implement a range of habitat restoration projects and water sharing measures.
“We think that instead of having these fish on the endangered species list, we’ll have them in the smokehouse” says Craig Tucker, a spokesman for the Karuk Tribe, which signed the agreements. Tucker believes removing the dams will open up about 1200 miles of habitat in the main stem of the river and along tributaries in the upper Klamath Basin for anadromous fish. “It will give the fish more places to spawn, more places to rear, cleaner water, cooler water, and more dependable flows,” Tucker says.
Signing the agreements, however, didn’t finalize the deal.
In order to go into effect, the pair of settlements must be approved by the Secretary of the Interior and authorized and funded by Congress by March 2012. In the Senate, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley plans to introduce a bill that would authorize the restoration plan. But it’s not clear how a bill would win approval in the House of Representatives, where several key Republicans oppose dam removal.
Several environmental groups, some farmers in the Klamath Basin and elected officials in Siskyou County in California also oppose the settlements. The environmental groups, including Water Watch and Oregon Wild, question the cost of the fulfilling the agreements and whether they will leave enough water in the Klamath River to improve salmon runs.
The fish model the Secretary of the Interior plans to release next week will suggest that removing the dams would significantly increase the returning chinook salmon population and allow for increases in tribal and recreational fishing, says Dennis Lynch, the program manager for the Klamath Secretarial determination.
A 60-day public comment period will follow the release of the Secretary’s report.
Numerous studies used to develop the plan are available online.
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