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Editorial: Historic opportunity

Warren Buffett, take down those dams!

November 22, 2006 EDITORIAL Sacramento Bee

Hundreds of thousands of salmon once spawned natural in the Klamath and were easy catches for fishermen, including these in this undated photo. Klamath County Historical Society

Here's a ceremony we look forward to witnessing: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, standing on the banks of the Klamath River, along with his Oregon counterpart, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and legendary investor Warren Buffett, an old friend of Schwarzenegger.

The three men are there to celebrate the removal of four obsolete dams on the Klamath. The removal of these dams kicks off a major restoration project for Northern California's second-largest river, which has its headwaters in the Oregon Cascades, and an end to the water wars that have long consumed this region. All the old warriors are there: the farmers, the environmentalists, the Indian tribes and Pacific Coast fishermen, who look forward to the return of robust salmon runs on the Klamath.

The conditions are ripe for such a historic deal. Buffett, the billionaire investor, could end up being the linchpin. Buffett's MidAmerican Energy Holdings owns PacifiCorp, a utility that receives about 2 percent of its energy from hydroelectric power plants at these dams. PacifiCorp hasn't yet agreed to decommission these dams. There are several reasons why it should do so.

For nearly a decade, conflict has embroiled the Klamath. In 2001, the federal government cut back irrigation water to farmers so it could help salmon and other fish protected under the Endangered Species Act. Farmers protested, and suddenly the entire nation was watching. Since then, the federal government has spent about $40 million a year on water banking and other programs aimed at avoiding a repeat of the Klamath crisis.

It hasn't worked. Over the decades, Indian tribes and commercial fishermen have watched the salmon runs on the Klamath dwindle. In 2002, a mysterious disease littered the river with dead salmon and further depleted the population. This year, federal regulators restricted ocean catches all along the Oregon and California coast to protect Klamath salmon that survived that awful year. Those restrictions turned a watershed crisis into a West Coast fishing disaster, hurting not only fishermen, but also a multibillion-dollar industry.

That's the bad news. What you probably haven't heard is the good news. For many months, all the old combatants on the Klamath have been quietly meeting to hash out a historic agreement. Nearly all sides agree that removing the four dams -- Iron Gate, Copco 1 & 2, J.C. Boyle and Keno -- could suddenly open up more than 300 miles of spawning habitat for salmon. These dams also trap nutrients and pollutants -- causing sickening algae blooms -- so their removal could also benefit water quality.

The Klamath dams generate about $20 million a year for PacifiCorp, but even if the dams stay upright, these profits are sure to fall. The utility is now seeking a new 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and federal agencies are recommending that, at a minimum, the utility install fish ladders on its dams to assist salmon. After installing ladders and taking other measures, the utility would lose about $28 million a year, according to a FERC analysis.

Schwarzenegger and Kulongoski have scheduled a summit next month on the Klamath, so the next few weeks will be crucial. All sides must compromise on remaining details, including how to pay for dam removal (up to $85 million) and how to ensure reasonable power rates for Klamath farmers.

PacifiCorp officials must engage as never before. If they don't, a monumental opportunity could be lost, and the next decade could be another one of lawsuits, finger pointing, angry farmers and dead fish.

About the writer:

Tens of thousands of salmon died in September, 2002 on the Klamath, one of many fish kills over the years. Scientists blame diseases, pollution low water flows, high water temperatures and loss of habitat for the decline. Associated Press/Elizabeth J. Finney

In August of 2004, the Copco 1 reservoir grew green with algae. Some scientists blame the dams for trapping nutients and allow this toxic algae to grow. Karuk Tribe

Thousands of farmers and their supporters protested in August, 2001 against the federal government's decision to reduce irrigation water to farms in the Klamath basin of Oregon and Northern California. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo/Anne Chadwick Williams

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