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Jim Cook: Behind the dams on the Klamath River

Jim Cook and Marcia H. Armstrong - Siskiyou County Supervisors

September 18, 2007
Story appeared in EDITORIALS section, Page B7

There is a clamor on the Klamath River for the removal of dams. As representatives of the region that encompasses all three California dams on this important river and the people who will be most affected by dam removal, we have serious doubts that this is the best environmental strategy, or even the best solution to enhance our fishery resource, the driver of this policy choice.

Unfortunately, this has become one of those issues in which reasoned discussion and scientific due diligence has given way to the power of important political interests, ideological stances and romanticized visions of run of the river results.

This debate has intensified, and is now coming to a head, as a result of a request by PacifiCorp for a new federal license to continue to operate its California and Oregon hydro-electric facilities on the Klamath River. Despite the fact that PacifiCorp has agreed to invest more than $300 million to provide significantly greater protection for Coho salmon and other fishery resources, opponents are nonetheless insisting on dam removal.

Yet, there is a very important reason why PacifiCorp has made it absolutely clear that it will not bear any responsibility for taking out dams. They have no clear idea as to what is in the tons and tons of sludge and sediment that have been collecting at the bottom of these structures for more than 50 years or how to remove the material safely. Quite simply, they are scared stiff by the prospect of so much legal liability.

As a result, if the dams are to be removed, it will only be if some other entity is created to buy them and take them out. If the utility that owns them is so fearful that removal could potentially unleash an environmental disaster, it naturally makes those of us who live here very apprehensive. Given these legitimate concerns, which no definitive studies have yet to allay, it is particularly frustrating that so little focus and creative energy have been expended on looking at other options to help promote our fishery resource.

No community in Northern California has done more to lead in Coho recovery than Siskiyou County. We are the home to two pilot projects that the Department of Fish and Game believes will be a model for the state in working collaboratively and with a minimum of bureaucracy to promote Coho recovery.

And certainly more must be done on the Klamath, including the installation of more fish ladders and ensuring that those upstream are prudent in their use of water for irrigation and agricultural purpose. There is much evidence to suggest that these, and other similar measures, would substantially improve Coho conditions without the fear of an environmental catastrophe that dam removal poses.

Moreover, scant attention has been paid to the other major environmental consideration -- in an era of global warming consciousness, substantial amounts of clean, cheap hydro power is being precipitously removed and potentially replaced by coal-fired power. This is hardly a plus for our planet or our ratepayers.

Finally, there needs to be some appreciation of the cumulative impacts of environmental regulations on communities such as Siskiyou County. The natural resource industry that historically employed our citizens and gave us the tax base to provide services to our people is now a shadow of its former self. Totally apart from the environmental considerations, dam removal will, among other things, further harm our tax base, reduce property values, dramatically curtail world-class white water rafting recreational opportunities, and, unless fully mitigated, negatively impact the quality of life in our community.

We understand that we are swimming against the current on this issue. Yet, we hope that this explanation of the perspective of those whose day-to-day life would be most affected promotes a more rigorous and thoughtful public discourse over the most prudent approach to returning the Klamath to health.

About the writer:

  • Jim Cook is chairman of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors. Marcia H. Armstrong is a member of the Board of Supervisors. Other supervisors who signed on as authors of this commentary are La Vada Erickson, Michael Kobseff and Bill Overman.
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