What about Copco?
Though coffee and cookies are passed around while friends and
neighbors catch up on each others’ lives, the reason for the meeting is anything but light – this small community feels they stand to lose the most if several dams along the Klamath River are removed in the year 2020, as proposed in a non-binding agreement reached between PacifiCorp, the Department of the Interior, and the states of California and Oregon last week.
PacifiCorp owns the dams, which provide electricity to 70,000 PacifiCorp customers. In order to re-license the dams, which were built over 100 years ago, PacifiCorp would have to spend $300 million to install fish ladders, the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) has said. The issue has sparked controversy between tribal groups and environmentalists who want the rivers to run free, and property owners who say their quality of life will suffer for the removal.
Lee Rickard calls the informal meeting to order, and conversation dims as she begins to speak.
“We’re concerned because the leaders we rely on don’t seem to hear us,” she says on behalf of the group. “We’re silent victims.” One by one, property owners recite their frustrations and concerns over what would happen to Copco Lake if the dams are removed.
Geneve Harder and her brother Herman Spannaus have a lengthy heritage in the area – their great-grandfather homesteaded there in the late 1800s, back when the dams were first being designed and patented. Historic photos displayed in Spannaus’ office show his ancestors working their land, which is now covered by the five-mile long Copco Lake.
“Back then, the power company bought his ranch,” Harder says, sighing. “You’d think he would have been upset, but he wasn’t – he knew it was for the sake of progress. Now, it’s like we’re going backward.”
Spannaus adds that the dams are “still doing what they were designed to do back when they were patented in 1887 – they’re still operating, providing clean energy for thousands of people.”
He feels that the agreement was drafted by the tribes and PacifiCorp, and that an important group – stakeholders and property owners – were left out. Plus, he says, it’s going to take a lot of money.
In the Agreement in Principle released last week, PacifiCorp states that California will be asked to vote on a $250 million bond for removal of the dams. The remaining removal costs will be born by ratepayers, and will be capped at $200 million, Pacificorp CEO Greg Abel said last week. If it’s determined that removal costs will likely exceed $450 million in non-federal contributions, a subsequent written agreement must be met before going forward with the removal.
“PacifiCorp’s promise when they first started talking about this was that they would not remove the dams if it affected ratepayers. Now, they’re talking about rate increases,” Spannaus says. “With our economy the way it is, the state won’t even pass bonds to support libraries. I have a hard time believing that the people of California will vote for a $250 million measure to remove dams in Northern California.”
Some residents of Copco Lake say they’ve already felt the economic impact just from the possibility of dam removal.
Donald and Pamela Hardi put their lakeside home on the market in September of 2006. Due to its private boat dock and 300 feet of lakefront property, they entered into escrow in just nine days. One month later, they were informed by their Realtor that their home had fallen out of escrow due to issues concerning the dam. They say they’ve had several interested people since, but no offers have been forthcoming because of concerns about whether the dam removal will affect the property.
Gloria Lemke, who owned the Copco Lake Store for 30 years with her husband John, said business began to taper off several years ago when reports about toxic blue-green algae blooms hit the news. The algae is present mostly in the warmer months, when the still water in Copco rises in temperature.
In 2007, signs were posted at the lake warning that the blooms had produced illegal levels of a bacterial toxin that could make contact with the water unsafe.
“We got hundreds of phone calls about whether fish were poisoned or if it was really safe to swim in the lake,” Lemke recalls. “Business slowly faded away, and we were forced to close.”
The residents have always maintained that they and their families swim in the lake regularly and have not suffered ill effects. About 100 families own homes at the lake, and around 40 percent of those are vacation homes, Spannaus said.
At certain times during the year, the water rises as far as some residents’ back porches, causing concern about flooding.
And then there’s the issue of fish.
Many tribes, conservationists and commercial fisherman are staunch supporters of the project, citing the reintroduction of salmon to the upper basin as a major benefit of dam removal. This is yet another point of contention with Copco residents, who say the lack of gravel and warm water temperatures in that area make it impossible for salmon to survive there. Plus, they say, salmon are not compatible with the fish above the dam, which include trout, yellow perch and catfish.
The fish debate illustrates the crux of the matter – it remains unlikely that all people affected by the decision will ever agree on what will happen should the dams be removed. Copco residents say they just hope their voices will be heard before the final decision is made.
Driving his truck around the lake, Spannaus points out one of the town’s two fire stations; equipment he helped write grants to get sits on the driveway outside. He singles out the home his grandparents lived in, the dilapidated old dance hall that years ago was filled with men and women and music during the night, the rock walls painstakingly arranged by early settlers. For Spannaus, the Klamath dams issue is about more than property value and quality of life.
“My family years ago gave up a beautiful ranch for this,” he says. “This is my heritage.”
The agreement reached last week mandates four years of scientific research, which will include looking at sediment build-up behind the dams and what will happen if it’s released downriver.
Only after that research is completed will the Department of the Interior make the final determination as to whether the dams will be removed. According to the agreement, that decision will be made no later than March 31, 2012. The Interior Department has stated that they intend to dialogue with state, local and tribal governments along with other stakeholders as the research process continues.