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Dam-removal plan in jeopardy

PORTLAND — The process to relicense the hydroelectric dam system on the Klamath River will move forward if Congress fails to act by the end of the year on historic settlement agreements to remove four of the dams.

The Klamath River basin, which straddles Oregon and California, has long been the site of intense political fights over the sharing of scarce water between farms and fish. The agreements to remove the dams, hammered out by farmers, tribes, environmentalists and states, were a compromise to restore the river for imperiled salmon and steelhead, and give farmers greater certainty about irrigation water.

Congress must pass legislation to implement the agreements, but House Republicans have blocked it for years, fearing it would set a precedent for dam removal.

In October, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden — a staunch dam removal opponent whose Oregon district includes one of the dams — said he was close to drafting a bill in the House. He has not released any details. His office this week said the lawmaker would convene a meeting Thursday with key Congressional leaders to discuss "a way forward" on Klamath Basin water issues.

If there's no legislation by the end of the year, several parties indicated they might abandon the settlement.

"It's not that we don't believe in the deal, it's that we've tried for years ... and have not been able to get support in Congress," said Craig Tucker, Klamath coordinator with the Karuk Tribe, one of four federally recognized tribes that support the agreements. "If we can get tribal leaders and ranchers to come to an agreement to share water, it's shocking that we can't bring our Congressmen along with us."

Relicensing of the Klamath dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses hydropower projects for 30 to 50 years, has been on hold for several years while groups negotiated for a federal bill.

As part of the relicensing process, the dams' owner and operator — PacifiCorps — must apply for water quality certifications in California and Oregon. This week, the California State Water Resources Control Board announced the public process was restarting; scoping meetings are scheduled for January.  California's process formally resumed in 2013, when the water board started working with PacifiCorps on an updated application — but no public meetings have been held.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said its process remains on hold.

If the federal government were to issue a new license to the utility, it would impose mitigation measures to reduce environmental impacts, including modifications to the aging dams' infrastructure and operations such as fish ladders or water quality improvements.

Those measures are needed because the dams thwart salmon migration, degrade water quality, alter water flows, and contribute to fish disease problems and algae bloom problems. Three tribes depend on the fish for subsistence and ceremonial needs, and a fourth hopes fish will return once the dams are removed.

One of the tribes already has obtained water rights through the courts, and the others could pursue that process, further limiting water to irrigators — which is partly why farmers and ranchers support the agreements. Klamath Basin agriculture is valued at about $670 million annually.

Dam removal under the agreement is also a better option for PacifiCorp, spokesman Bob Gravely said. It's less expensive, offers the utility liability protection and caps the costs to PacifiCorps customers, he said. Several studies have shown that dam upgrades would significantly reduce electricity generation and would cost millions more than dam removal and replacement of hydropower with other sources.

"We're not ideologically for or against dam removal," Gravely said. "We need to make decisions that lead to the best available outcome for our customers."

Despite the broad agreements, several attempts in recent years to pass federal legislation have failed. U.S. senator Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced a bill earlier this year that would halt the relicensing process and put the agreements into play — but it, too, hasn't moved forward.

Walden told the Herald and News in October that there weren't alternatives to dam removal, unless the agreement was blown apart. But other Republicans, including California's Doug LaMalfa whose district includes three of the dams, oppose dam removal.

"The Congressman has been very clear in his belief that the dams are working as intended to generate electricity," spokesman Kevin Eastman told The Associated Press.

If legislation fails to materialize and the dams are re-licensed, the utility could still choose to remove the dams if the costs of upgrades are too high.

But without the broad settlement agreements, officials said, PacifiCorps customers would face higher costs for dam removal, also water sharing and river restoration benefits would be jeopardized. And that could increase fish kills and water shut-offs to ranches and farms.

In this Aug. 21, 2009, file photo, water trickles over Copco 1 Dam on the Klamath River outside Hornbrook, Calif. The process to relicense the hydroelectric dam system on the Klamath River has restarted again as historic settlement agreements to remove four of the dams have thus far failed to make headway in Congress this year. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.