Walden bill doesn't include dam removal
PORTLAND — Rep. Greg Walden has released a proposal to resolve disputes over scarce water in the Klamath Basin — but it doesn't include the removal of four aging dams, a central point in historic settlement agreements.
The agreements, hammered out by farmers, tribes, environmentalists and states, aim to restore the river for imperiled salmon and steelhead and give farmers more certainty about irrigation water. The Klamath Basin straddles Oregon and California.
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. The agreements expire at the end of December.
The draft legislation, released on Thursday by Walden, R-Ore., does not authorize or fund federal dam removal. It leaves that up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses hydropower projects, though it's unclear if the commission would ask the utility to tear down the dams.
Several parties to the agreement said the lack of a dam removal provision makes the draft bill a non-starter. They say the dams thwart salmon migration, degrade water quality, alter water flows, and contribute to fish disease problems.
"If there is no dam deal, there is no damn deal," said Josh Saxon, a councilman with the Karuk Tribe.
Three federally-recognized tribes depend on salmon 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.
Don Gentry, the chairman of the Klamath Tribal Council, said there's significant concern about where legislation without dam removal would leave the tribe.
"When we voted for the agreements ... that vote included dam removal," Gentry said.
PacifiCorp, which owns and operates the four dams, did not immediately return a call for comment. But the utility, a signatory to the agreements, supports dam removal, because it would be less costly than making upgrades to the hydropower system's infrastructure and operations.
The utility is also concerned about liability when it comes to the impact of dam removal. The historic agreements shield PacifiCorp from such liability.
Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley called the draft "a step forward," but said it falls short of implementing the carefully-negotiated agreements.
"The giveaway of federal lands to counties is a known non-starter in the Senate," the senators said in a joint statement on the draft. "It also eliminates a provision on dam removal that is central to the bargain worked out over years with blood, sweat, and tears."
Wyden and Merkley introduced their own bill earlier this year to put the Klamath agreements into play, including dam removal. The two said they'll work with colleagues in the House to refine Walden's proposal.