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In the Klamath, a baby step


A dam on the Klamath River

When the sponsor of Senate Bill 76 stood up in the Oregon House today, an obvious question arose immediately. The sponsor was Representative Ben Cannon, a Portland Democrat. The bill has to do with removal of four dams on the Klamath River, about 300 miles south from Portland. So why Cannon and not someone more local?

After all, the bill was described as (this is from the official House Democratic description) “the product of a negotiated agreement between Oregon, Washington, California, the federal government and PacifiCorp. It is supported by over two dozen groups including agriculture interests, conservation groups, utility companies, Native American tribes and other affected participants who developed the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.”

Sounds pretty sweeping. And Cannon was a capable floor sponsor. But the rest of the story emerged right after, as the representative from the Klamath Falls area (his district covers the river basin area in question) stood to speak against the bill. That was Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls, who offered an impassioned argument against the bill.

There’s a long history here, as anyone who’s followed the Klamath debate knows, ranging from water shutoffs to full flows, variously helping and hurting fish, farmers and other interests. There have been high-profile protests and much more.

The recent settlement, from last year, appeared to bring an end of much of this – at least put an end in sight, with proposed demolition (years from now, probably after 2020) of four dams and a string of concessions to various parties. On the surface, it looked like a deal (somewhat resembling in construct the Nez Perce/Snake River deal in Idaho a few years back). However.

PacifiCorp’s description of the turf:

Originating from Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon, the Klamath River flows 240 miles from Oregon into northern California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean near Klamath, CA. The river drains an area of about 13,000 square miles. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) owns several large tracts of land in the project vicinity and is responsible for the management of the designated Klamath Wild and Scenic Reach, which covers about 11 miles of the project’s total 64 mile length.

Built between 1908 and 1962, PacifiCorp’s Klamath River Hydroelectric Project consists of seven hydroelectric developments and one nongenerating dam. The U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation owns Link River Dam which PacifiCorp operates in coordination with the company’s projects. The Link River Dam, located upstream of PacifiCorp’s projects, forms Upper Klamath Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Oregon. In addition to diverting water for PacifiCorp hydroelectric generation, water releases through Link River dam from Upper Klamath Lake fulfill other objectives including irrigation, flood control and instream flows for anadromous fish.

Cannon pointed out that the current legislation is limited in scope – it would set some groundwork for PacifiCorp financing of dam scaledowns, and involve something like a $1.50 per month fee for ratepayers for that prupose. It wouldn’t authorize demolition of the dams. To Garrard’s point that “I don’t think the members of this body, and I include myself, are qualified on the matter of dam removal,” Cannon didn’t take issue. This specific bill only allows for the next in a long series of steps.

That was more than Garrard wanted to allow, though. A lot of groups may have signed on, he said, but most of the people in his district remain opposed to dam removal. And: “We need some answers before you pass this.”

He was supported in that by a couple of other rural representatives, who made the point that people in that dry country become nervous when legislators from places like Portland become heavily involved in water policy.

The bill passed, 34-24. But its experience en route was a clear indicator that the Klamath wars are far from over.

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