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County missing Klamath talks

by Michelle Ma, Triplicate  11/10/07

As ongoing Klamath River settlement talks gain momentum and point to probable dam removal, Del Norte County's Board of Supervisors has been largely absent from the negotiation process.

The talks have brought together 26 groups for nearly three years. Those represented include fishermen, environmentalists, farmers, and federal, state and county leaders.

The content of these discussions is confidential, but stakeholders say they are on the verge of reaching an agreement.

 "We've developed a dam removal plan that everyone can now get behind," said Craig Tucker, Klamath campaign coordinator with the Karuk Tribe. "There's something in it for everyone."

But Del Norte County's Board of Supervisors has not had a representative involved with these talks, even though the Klamath River flows through the county's southern reaches.

The Yurok Tribe has been involved with settlement talks from the start, advocating for removal of the dams. "As a county, we've been remiss in not being in loud, vocal support of the Yurok Tribe," said Commissioner Martha McClure.

McClure and Commissioner David Finigan both said the county remains in full support of the Yurok Tribe. McClure added that the county should rely on the Yurok Tribe's extensive research that points to dam removal as the best solution.

 The Board of Supervisors, however, has not taken an official stance on Klamath River dam removal. "There's no indication (the Yurok Tribe's) position would be contrary to that of the Board's," Finigan said. Settlement negotiators hope to reach an agreement before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) determines whether or not PacifiCorp's 161-megawatt hydroelectric project on the Klamath River will be relicensed to continue operating.

The talks have covered wider-reaching issues, including the health of the entire basin and its communities, said Greg Hurner, senior advisor to the director of California's Department of Fish and Game.

A settlement reached among stakeholders and PacifiCorp would be brought to FERC for approval. This would essentially bypass what could be a lengthy legal process and allow the parties involved to present an agreed-upon alternative, Hurner said.

"Our goal is to produce something that absolutely helps to restore the environment, will help maintain sustainable communities in the basin and is in the best interests of the power company," he said. PacifiCorp, the power company operating dams on the Klamath River, initiated these settlement talks and has remained involved. About 42,000 customers in Northern California are served by PacifiCorp, said Jan Mitchell, spokeswoman.

"We've done everything asked of us by the settlement group, and we've been willing to meet anywhere and anytime," she said. "We continue to believe the settlement process will lead to the best outcome, but any settlement agreement must protect our customers' best interests."

Before the settlement group formed, Del Norte County took part in the Klamath River Basin Fisheries Task Force. But the county's Board of Supervisors never received an invitation to participate in the most current settlement talks, Finigan said.

Supervisors found out about the settlement talks after they had already started. It was unclear that the meetings were formal negotiations and not just unorganized exchanges of opinion, Finigan said.

Had the county been invited to participate in the settlement talks, Finigan said he would have jumped at the opportunity.

 But Jill Geist, who serves on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, said that Del Norte County's Board of Supervisors was issued calls, e-mails and letters asking for participation in the settlement talks. "At that time, Del Norte County was invited," said Geist, who has been participating in the negotiations. "I don't know why they chose not to pick up the seat."

Geist said she has tried to advocate for all of the lower-basin counties, including Del Norte, during settlement talks. Monetary issues have come up, she said.

"I've tried to advocate for things that aren't just Humboldt-centric," she said. "All of these coastal communities represented will still benefit from what we are advocating for."

From the negotiations, Craig Tucker of the Karuk Tribe said stakeholders want the dams out by 2015. They are working toward an agreement with irrigators on the maximum amount of water that can be diverted, while assuring they have water, he said.

"This is not a deal to put farmers out of business," Tucker said. "This will keep them in business and keep their community viable."

The settlement talks have participants traveling around the country, taking part in conference calls and meeting in smaller groups. But the ball is rolling faster than ever, negotiators say.

"We think the time is now," Tucker said. "We're talking about the biggest planned dam removal in the history of man." Reach Michelle Ma at mma@triplicate.com.

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