and John DeVoe

and John DeVoe

Newspapers across Oregon last week ran headlines announcing that a deal had been struck to remove four dams from the Klamath River. Unfortunately, many of these stories missed key facts.

Such as no dam removal can even begin until after 2020. Or that the deal has not been signed by any party and has multiple escape clauses that permit PacifiCorp to back out. Or that removal is contingent on passage of a $1 billion deal that rewards politically powerful agricultural interests with costly subsidies, locks in harmful development on two of America's most important National Wildlife Refuges for the next 50 years, and leaves the basin's crippling water woes unresolved.

If we are truly going to restore salmon and wildlife in the Klamath Basin, and resolve the conflict over water, the Obama administration and Congress must unravel this knot.

Removal of the lower four Klamath dams is an idea whose time has certainly come. These aging concrete structures, owned by the energy giant PacifiCorp, generate a small amount of electricity while doing enormous harm to fish and water quality.

Since 1917, these dams have blocked wild salmon and steelhead from reaching more than 300 miles of historic habitat, and have created stagnant, algae filled reservoirs that have worsened already severe water pollution problems in the Klamath Basin.

But while dam removal would be a giant step forward for salmon recovery, it isn't a silver bullet. Solving the environmental problems of the Klamath Basin requires not only removing dams, but also reducing the amount of water diverted from lakes, rivers, and wetlands, and restoring wetland habitat on both private and public lands. This is where the breathless enthusiasm of the deal announced last week runs afoul of reality.

In 2007, when Oregon Wild and WaterWatch were part of negotiations seeking compromise in the Klamath, some stakeholders made a cold calculation: they could sacrifice certain conservation values to get federal and irrigation interests at the table to support dam removal.

What resulted was a guarantee of water deliveries for politically-powerful irrigation interests in excess of what is currently legally allowed under the Endangered Species Act. Other conditions included new subsidies to provide irrigation interests with below-market electricity rates and an unsustainable and unbalanced share of water.

Outrageous among the conservation sacrifices was the concession that over 22,000 acres of publicly-owned land within Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges continue to be managed primarily for commercial agriculture for the next 50 years. These two refuges are the most critical areas for migratory birds in the western United States, but this outdated program allows land within these refuges to be leased for private, commercial agriculture.

Under the sweetheart water deal, pesticide-intensive row crops would remain the top priority for decades to come, with limited or no opportunity for scientific review.

Luckily, the Obama administration, and ultimately, Congress, will have an opportunity to unravel this mess. They can start by insisting that dam removal be severed from the $1 billion deal. Dam removal can proceed more quickly, and with more certainty, if it is not tied to the $1 billion deal, and the anti-environmental provisions it contains.

In addition, if PacifiCorp wishes federal taxpayers to assume liability for the dams and the environmental problems they create, Congress should require the utility to hand over ownership on a date certain, so dam removal operations can proceed sooner than 2020.

The water deal itself needs fundamental reform. A compromise between environmental interests and irrigators is certainly desirable, and possible. But it must be based on a balanced give and take that does not assign all the risk to the river and its fish. Schemes to manage publicly-owned National Wildlife Refuges for commercial agriculture rather than wildlife have no place in such an agreement.

Furthermore, if taxpayers are to continue subsidizing Klamath farming, these commitments must be paired with a real plan to reduce water use and ensure water flows in the Klamath River meet what science says salmon need to survive.

Ani Kame'enui is the Klamath Campaign Coordinator for Oregon Wild. John DeVoe is the Executive Director of WaterWatch.