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Parties say Klamath settlement close
Dam relicensing hearings involve many related issues

Tam Moore, Capital Press 11/17/06

A new federal license proposed for PacifiCorp's Klamath River hydroelectric system has turned into the driver for resolving a host of issues and a rallying cry to tear down the dams instead of reauthorizing them.

Most issues are on the table this week as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission begins public hearings on an environmental impact statement for the revised project. Others are before stakeholders carrying out settlement negotiations even as the formal hearings are held.

And countless basin residents want an end to arguments so fixing the watershed can move forward.

"I am just so tired of fighting, I've been doing it for 12 years," said Mike Connelly, a former farmer and now executive director of the Klamath Basin Ecosystem Foundation. He spoke at last week's Klamath Watershed Conference, where private settlement talks went on in one room while open conference sessions took place across the hall.

Becky Hyde, a Sprague River rancher, noted the settlement talks and asked conference attendees to "give a blessing" to people in the small room.

The FERC hearings, which began Nov. 14 in Klamath Falls, Ore., won't be over until a Nov. 29 session in Coos Bay, Ore. FERC staffers must also negotiate with federal fish management agencies on Endangered Species Act conditions, wrapping it all together by sometime in mid-2007.

It's a very public process, said Toby Freeman, who is in charge of relicensing operations for PacifiCorp. He moved from corporate headquarters in Portland to Klamath Falls earlier this year to be closer to the rapidly unfolding process.

PacifiCorp is licensed to produce 161 megawatts of electricity from Klamath hydroelectric power plants at Iron Gate Dam on the downstream end - about five miles east of the I-5 highway in Northern California - to a pair of aging turbines below Link River Dam at Klamath Falls on the upstream side. Its new application calls for keeping just four of the dams, withdrawing from involvement at Link River and a regulating dam at Keno in Oregon. Power production would be trimmed to about 150MW.

The federal fish management agencies as a minimum want passage for salmon restored above Iron Gate.

American Indian tribes want removal of the four dams PacifiCorp seeks to continue operating, tying removal to restoring troubled salmon runs. They hold fishing rights under an 1864 treaty.

Upstream irrigators want guarantees that the phase-out of bargain-basement electric power rates tied to the previous PacifiCorp license won't put farms out of business.

PacifiCorp, in a statement earlier this year, said the company is open to solutions that make economic sense to its investors. MidAmerica Energy Co., controlled by billionaire Warren Buffet, owns PacifiCorp.

"Clearly we are at a critical time in the Klamath Basin. The communities are in trouble," said Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the middle river Karuk Tribe, speaking at the stakeholder's conference. "Now is the time for landscape change, not Band-Aids over bullet holes - no more."

Settlement talks point the way for solutions.

"If (Klamath) project water users and the tribes can sit in the same room for days, that tells me we have hope," Hillman said. "It's a process, and I'm happy to say I have friends who live throughout the basin. Some of them grow alfalfa for a living. I want them to have success."

Greg Addington, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association, said this week in an interview that his irrigator-oriented group continues to talk, "but we haven't turned the corner yet" in reaching full agreement.

Addington spoke during a break in this week's settlement talks where there's a push to resolve as many proposed hydro license conditions as possible before the formal FERC process is completed.

Phil Dietrich, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Klamath coordinator, last week told the Klamath Watershed Conference that the FERC time line calls for his agency and National Marine Fisheries Service to deliver their final requirements in early 2007. That would come about the time the FERC staff wraps up its Environmental Impact Statement work and would set the scene for the full commission to act on some form of license.

"It's possible the new license could come in the fall of 2007," Dietrich said. "But the possibility exists that the settlement talks could lead to dam removal."

FERC has a very public session with the fish agencies next month, in which ESA consultations - typically carried out behind closed doors - will be held in open session. The consultation is Dec. 12-14 at the Redding, Calif., Red Lion Hotel and Hilton Inn.

Troy Fletcher, a biologist by training who worked for Yurok Tribal Fisheries, stepped up to become the tribe's executive director, and is the tribe's consultant for the settlement talks, said in an interview that solutions are close.

"Closer than they've ever been," he said, smiling and holding forefinger and thumb a quarter-inch apart.

Left unanswered is who would pay for dam removal if FERC ordered it. The tribes have cost estimates ranging from $100 million to $200 million and say it would create 2,000 temporary construction work jobs.

Tam Moore is based in Medford, Ore. His e-mail address is tmoore@capitalpress.com.

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