Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Four Klamath River Dams to Go in 2020

Immovable objects meet irresistible forces


The Klamath River flows 263 miles through Oregon and northern California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Four of its controversial dams – Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2, and J.C. Boyle – owned and operated by Pacific Power, a division of PacifiCorp are now scheduled for removal in 2020 under newly revised agreements by state, federal and corporate officials. Map courtesy of the Friends of the River Foundation.

Call it 20-20 hindsight. Or in this case, foresight.

In early April, a collaboration of state, federal, and corporate officials took a major step toward settling a decades-long clash between seemingly immovable objects and equally irresistible forces when they signed an agreement that could finally lead to the removal of four aging hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in 2020.

For most folks involved – among them commercial and recreational fishermen, who for possibly the first time in anybody's recollection have found a fisheries issue they both wholeheartedly support – it's time for cautious optimism.

Faced with dwindling salmon runs from the key spawning river that straddles the border between southern Oregon and northern California, commercial salmon fishermen are hopeful, but reserved. They say they have been on the verge of this potential dam removal several times, and ended up sadly disappointed and ultimately economically shipwrecked. Since 2004, when Oregon's salmon trollers landed 2.9 million pounds of fish, and 2005, when they hauled in 2.6 million pounds, they endured a federally-declared disaster in 2006, a well-below-average catch in 2007, another federally-declared disaster in 2008, a basically non-existent 2009 season, a somewhat improved, yet quite limited season in 2010, a disappointing 2011, when fish were scarce, despite healthy forecasts, followed by improved, but still less than anticipated results in 2012 and 2013.

Nancy Fitzpatrick, Oregon salmon Commission executive director, said the 2015 commercial harvest ended in disappointment - about 1.2 million pounds valued at $7.3 million in the wake of landing 2.6 million pounds valued at $14.8 million in 2014.

A potential shutdown was among the options fishery managers considered for the 2016 season, but a somewhat limited season did set sail, and has lurched along. Still, fears remain high among commercial fishermen that they could face a closure in 2017 similar in scope to 2008.

Poor salmon returns to the Klamath and Sacramento Rivers spawned the 2006 and 2008 disasters, and fishery managers say the ensuing recovery remains exceedingly fragile. To those in fishing and farming communities, the management of the Klamath River for weak stock and Endangered Species Act-listed fish species has for too many years "negatively affected the livelihoods of fishermen, farmers, and tribes."

While the dams aren't the only source of salmon woes, participants in and observers of the most recent iteration of Klamath agreements say their removal would bring a major course change in the right direction.

At issue are the Iron Gate, J.C. Boyle, Copco 1, and Copco 2 dams that are part of Pacific Power's Klamath River Hydroelectric Project, located mainly in Klamath County, Oregon, and Siskiyou County, California. The existing project covers 219 acres of land administered by the US Bureau of Land Management and Reclamation.

Opponents say the "outdated" dams (built in the late 1950s and early 1960s) provide little power, no flood control, miniscule water storage, and serve no irrigation purpose, while simultaneously blocking hundreds of miles of former salmon habitat, creating river conditions hostile to salmon downstream, and negatively impacting ocean fisheries and downstream fishing communities. They have repeatedly urged Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) officials to consider options - chief among them, dam removal or full fish passage - to achieve the greatest benefit for salmon and fishing communities. But they say FERC has ignored mandates from NOAA Fisheries and other agencies – what environmentalists and fishermen say were clear directions - that date back to 2002.

Newport, Oregon-based fishermen say problems with the Klamath salmon runs – much of it caused by the presence of the dams – have cost Oregon's coastal counties millions in lost revenue since 2005. Such a financial impact, they note, "devastates coastal communities struggling to provide family-wage jobs."

They have warned for years that failure to remove the dams could irreparably harm the coastal salmon fishery, with "collateral damage" that would far outweigh any economic benefits. While not the only perceived culprit, the dams are in their view, "a major contributor" to fishery woes along the Oregon and California coasts. Noting the fleet's importance to coastal towns, ocean harvesters say the dams' benefits are "out of balance" with other economies.

The future of coastal communities hangs in that balance, as the Pacific Northwest continues to morph from a once-thriving salmon cradle into a grave.

Long-time fishermen called the 2006 salmon season a "defining moment" in the seemingly never-ending process, a chance for federal, state and PacifiCorp (parent company of Pacific Power) officials to "do the right thing" and remove all four dams. Now, at last, a decade later, state, federal, and industry officials have agreed to remove those dams, potentially returning the river's historic fish runs and advancing their recovery through one of the nation's largest-ever river restoration efforts.

Charting a course

Those who signed the agreement – including state governors Brown (Kate of Oregon and Jerry of California), United States Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, and Stefan Bird, the president and CEO of Pacific Power - characterized it as an "initial step" in long-term restoration of the river basin. They say it supports efforts to recover fisheries and simultaneously assist the region's farmers and ranchers, the environment and the communities that rely on the Klamath.

"These agreements are more than ink and paper. They are a roadmap to the future of the Klamath Basin and of the people who live there," said Oregon Governor Kate Brown, noting that the effort invoked the spirit of collaboration to simultaneously ensure the recovery of the Klamath's historic fishing grounds and maintain the region's farming and ranching heritage.

Jewell called it "a historic day where the parties who have worked for decades to restore the Klamath Basin are reaffirming their commitment to each other for the shared vision of fisheries restoration and irrigated agriculture co-existing as we move into the future." She noted that it's "an important initial step" as those involved work toward a comprehensive set of actions "to advance long term restoration and sustainability for tribes, fisheries, and agriculture and water users across the Klamath Basin."

Bird said PacifiCorp officials support the settlement "as a fair way forward for our electricity customers in Oregon, California and beyond."

Sullivan said the agreement – actually agreements – would support efforts to recover fisheries, sustain the region's farming and ranching interests, and benefit the environment and the communities who rely upon the Klamath River." She also noted that "more work lies ahead."

Never over till it's over

Wild salmon depend on rivers and streams for migration and spawning, and experts say salmon could survive varying ocean conditions, hatcheries, even dams, if not for ever-increasing amounts of water extracted from freshwater rivers and streams, mostly for farm irrigation. Almost five years of unrelenting drought in California intensified the urgency of competing claims to water rights between farms and fisheries, not only in the Klamath River basin, but in the Sacramento River and San Joaquin Valley in California.

Fishery managers say the Sacramento and Klamath rivers produce the second and third largest salmon runs, respectively, in the Pacific Northwest, and both are in jeopardy.

After decades of strife among tribal, agricultural and fishery interests that reached a crisis in 2002, negotiations culminated with a water-sharing agreement in 2010 - the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA). The Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement (UKBCA) followed in 2014.

Members of the California and Oregon congressional delegations introduced legislation during the past two sessions to advance the KHSA and two related agreements. Yet while PacifiCorp, both state governments and the federal government backed the deal, hopes that Congress would finally approve legislation authorizing $250 million to remove the dams and open up 420 miles of habitat to restore salmon runs by an estimated 80 percent, faded and then died as Congress adjourned in 2015 without taking action and the agreement expired January 1, creating uncertainty in moving forward with the KHSA and UKBCA.

Negotiations began anew, culminating with an amended dam removal agreement, which uses existing nonfederal funding and follows the same timeline as the original agreement.

State and federal officials also signed a new, separate agreement with irrigation interests and other parties known as the 2016 Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement (KPFA). It aims to help Klamath Basin irrigators avoid potentially adverse financial and regulatory impacts associated with the return of fish runs to the Upper Klamath Basin.

Officials planned to file the agreement with FERC on or about July 1 for consideration under the agency's established processes. Under the newly-minted arrangement, PacifiCorp would transfer its license to operate the dams to a private company called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which would oversee the dam removal in 2020. PacifiCorp would continue to operate the dams until they are decommissioned.

Additional work awaits to fully restore the Klamath Basin, advance the recovery of its fisheries, uphold trust responsibilities to the tribes, and maintain the region's farming and ranching economy. Those efforts will require congressional action, and active cooperation to develop additional agreements over the next year to offer comprehensive solutions to these issues.

Which is why commercial fishermen once again remain cautiously optimistic.


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