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Dan Keppen: Removing Klamath dams doesn't apply to the Snake: READER'S VIEW DAM REMOVAL
by Dan Keppen, Idaho Statesman 11/23/08

(For another viewpoint: Senator Doug Whitsett speech on Klamath dam removal and KlamathBasinRestorationAgreement, KFLS)

A one-size-fits-all approach does not work when it comes to dam removal.

Considerable media coverage has surrounded the historic effort by the Bush administration, California and Oregon, and farming, tribal and environmental interests to reach settlement in the long-simmering Klamath River conflict. Some environmental activists and urban newspapers are already using the Klamath pact as justification to ramp up dam removal efforts on other Western streams.

I hope the dam critics will heed this note of caution, from someone who lives in the Klamath Basin and has been very close to the water challenges faced by our community since 2001, when our century-old irrigation project had water deliveries curtailed for the sake of fish.

The issues surrounding the dams, salmon and water are not remotely similar to those faced on the Snake River. For example, the dams on the Klamath River are part of a corporate hydroelectric project designed to maximize power generation and timing benefits.

The reservoirs do not store water for farmers. Economic studies suggest that removing the Klamath dams is cheaper than building fish ladders, improving water quality, and implementing other improvements to help salmon.

On the other hand, the dams and reservoirs on the lower Snake River are multipurpose federal facilities that provide enough power to light the city of Seattle. The dams are also critical cogs in the regional navigation system. Enormous environmental tradeoffs would be required if the lower Snake dams are removed. How do you replace the hydropower production capacity? How many boxcars and trucks would be needed to match the system's current capacity to move goods by barge?

The unique nature of the Klamath dams and interests of the parties that depend on the river contributed to the very unique nature of the proposed settlement. Although a bitter pill for many in the farming community to swallow, dam removal is the political glue that holds this particular deal together.

In exchange for not opposing dam removal on the Klamath River, irrigators get assurances and support from once-adversarial parties for affordable and reliable water and power in the future.

And it's still not a done deal. Questions remain about how effective dam removal really will be to the future health of the Klamath salmon fishery. The Klamath agreement sets out a requirement for studying how removing the dams would affect water quality and fish habitat.

A key concern is to ensure that the environmental impact of the release of sediment built up behind the dams would not be worse than leaving the dams in place.

Environmental organizations and some urban newspapers give the impression that tearing out dams is an automatic silver bullet remedy to salmon recovery efforts. In fact, tremendous uncertainty surrounds dam removal, and individual projects must be closely and realistically examined on a case-by-case basis.

If our policy leaders really want to recover salmon - and not just satisfy a dam removal agenda - they should work to focus even more efforts on understanding all of the stressors to the fish, including harvest impacts and the natural variability of runs caused by ocean and other conditions.

Just because a truly historic and important settlement has been developed on the Klamath River - one that hinges on dam removal - does not mean the same fit can be applied to other Western streams.

Dan Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, a grassroots organization representing irrigators in 17 Western states, including Idaho. He served as executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association from 2001-2005. This editorial represents his personal views, and not those of either of these organizations.

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