Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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Radical environmentalists push to destroy dams to reopen salmon spawning habitat
Editor’s note: This article has been modified.
Nestled beneath the picturesque mountains and cobalt blue skies of northern California is the shimmering deep-water Copco Lake teeming with fish—it’s where families like the Taits have vacationed for generations.
It’s the carefree fishing, exploration of rich geographical areas and the wildlife viewing of bald eagles and black-tailed deer that have lured Ken Tait and his wife Valletta to their vacation retreat for 32 years.
“It’s the great, hidden secret of California,” Tait says. “It would be a tragedy to destroy it.”
But that’s exactly what is happening.
Environmentalists, local Native American tribes and several government agencies want to tear down the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River—one of which created Copco Lake—that stretches 255 miles from Oregon to the Pacific Ocean.
Primarily the dams create clean energy to supply more than 70,000 homes and businesses in northern California and southern Oregon with electricity, but opponents say the dams must be destroyed to restore depleted fisheries and reinvigorate their upstream habitat.
Interestingly, a fish hatchery just below one of the dams produces five million salmon smolts a year, 17,000 of which return annually to spawn.
But those fish don’t count, says Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on water and power and the leading opponent on Capitol Hill of the dams’ demolition.
“Adding insult to insanity, when they remove the Iron Gate Dam, the fish hatchery goes with it,” McClintock said.
Environmentalists say hatchery fish are genetically inferior and lack the behavioral skills to survive in the wild, and should not be included in population counts.
“And yet science has not been able to define any conceivable difference between a hatchery fish and a fish born in the wild, than it’s been able to discern the difference between a baby born at home and a baby born at a hospital,” McClintock said.
“This is not about saving the salmon. This is about this bizarre new religion of the left, which reasons that mother Earth is suffering a terrible infestation of human beings and must be restored to its pristine, pre-historic condition. The only practical problem with that is it requires restoring the human population to its pristine, pre-historic condition. And that is not going to end well,” McClintock said.
“You laugh, but when you talk to these people, you realize that we are literally dealing with the lunatic fringe of our society, and they happen to be in control of our public policy on these matters because we’ve let them,” McClintock said.
It has been 50 years since PacifiCorp was last issued a license to operate the dams, a time when there was no Clean Water Act, no Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forcing the agency to jump through bureaucratic hoops.
When the license expired in 2004, environmentalists and tribes took advantage of the process to push for demolition, while federal agencies demanded that PacifiCorp spend $400 million to construct bypasses around the dams for the fish. The complicated process also involves tribal treaty rights for Native Americans and water rights for farmers.
After years of negotiations, lawsuits by environmentalists, and an EPA ruling that further blocked PacifiCorp’s chance of getting needed permits to operate the dams, the company had few choices to consider and in 2008 announced that removing the dams would be the cheapest alternative for its customers. PacifiCorp, based in Portland, serves 1.7 million customers in eight states, including Oregon, northern California, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Montana and Arizona. It is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which is controlled by investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Besides 44 hydro systems, PacifiCorp operates 14 coal mines and facilities, 13 wind systems and more than a half-dozen natural gas and geothermal operations. The company reported $4.6 billion in operating revenue for 2011.
Reopen spawning habitat
Dismantling the four dams would reopen hundreds of miles of spawning habitat on the Klamath River for Coho salmon—which are not native to the river—as well as Chinook, steelhead, and lamprey that opponents of the dams say are dangerously close to extinction. Using the dams to divert water to farmers and cities also creates toxic algae and parasites that contaminate the water built up behind the dams, opponents say.
It would be the largest dam removal project in California’s history if Congress and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approve it at an estimated cost of nearly $300 million. PacifiCorp customers are expected to pay $200 million; another $100 million would come from California taxpayers while federal taxpayers will pay for the Interior Department’s work. By comparison, the price tag for PacifiCorp to keep the dams operational is $500 million.
PacifiCorp operates more than 40 hydro facilities in the western U.S., and while they have agreed to remove some of their dams on the Klamath River, they are forging ahead with the burdensome and costly license renewal process to keep dam operations on the North Umpqua River in Oregon and Lewis River in Washington.
“For us, it’s about what decision produces the least-cost, least-risk option for our customers and the company,” said Bob Gravely, PacifiCorp spokesman.
“Usually that decision comes when we have to renew a license. Does it make more sense from a cost and risk perspective to make the capital investments and adjust operations to continue operating a dam under the terms of a new license or does it make more sense to decommission the project and replace the power? It can go either way depending on the circumstances,” Gravely said.
Squandering $250 million
McClintock offers another alternative: “We’re told that yes, this is expensive, but it will cost less than retrofitting the dams to meet cost-prohibitive environmental requirements,” the congressman said during a House floor speech last year. “If that is the case, then maybe we should re-think those requirements, not squander more than a quarter billion dollars to destroy existing hydro-electric dams. Or here’s a modest suggestion to address the salmon population—count the hatchery fish.”
The dams would be replaced in 2020 with wind and solar power operations to provide electricity, MClintock says, but he warns that the intermittent nature of solar and wind means they are an unreliable sole source of energy.
“You may have noticed that when a cloud passes over the sun, or the sun goes down, or the wind falls off, the generating capacity of these solar and wind projects drops suddenly, unpredictably and precipitously,” McClintock said.
The numerous stakeholders in the operation reached an agreement in 2010 that the dams should be removed, prompting new scientific and environmental analysis with the Interior Department wielding the power to say whether or not the dams stay.
However, Salazar missed the March 31 deadline to make his decision. His spokesman told Human Events that the delay was due to Congress’s failure to pass legislation authorizing the Obama administration to move forward.
Asked whether Congress will give Salazar that authority, McClintock explained:
“Over my dead body.”
The multi-million dollar removal project also requires Congress to approve the federal funding, but a spokesman for House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) told Human Events that any request for money to tear down the dam faces the congressman’s determined opposition.
The chairman also weighed in on the Obama administration’s actions last year to include the entire nation in on the decision-making process, and to pay them for their troubles.
Some 10,000 households received surveys in the mail asking them to help measure the societal and economic value of removing the dams. The surveys included a $2 bill, along with a promise to pay respondents another $20 for mailing the survey back to government bureaucrats before the deadline.
“This is as maddening as it is wasteful,” Hastings said at the time.
Copco Lake—its name derived from the California Oregon Power Company—was artificially created by one of the dams in 1919.
Former President Herbert Hoover used to vacation there, so did Western novelist Zane Grey and the intrepid explorer Amelia Earhart. Today, nearly 150 vacation homes dot the landscape.
“It’s not a big resort, but people love the fishing, which will all be gone,” Tait said.
With the threat of the dam’s demolition looming and the prospect of the glimmering waters replaced by an arid lakebed filled with sagebrush, property values have already plunged.
The Taits intended that their four children and nine grandchildren would inherit the family’s vacation home, but now they fear there will be nothing left for their future generations.
“It’s just criminal that they are thinking of taking it down, and it’s all about the fish,” Tait said. “It’s government run amok. It’s really a shame.”
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