The Home Stretch for Klamath River Hydropower Removal

By Published On: July 27, 2021

After years of trials and tribulations, the last needed state regulatory approval of PacifiCorp’s handover of its ownership of the four dams on the lower Klamath River occurred July 27, leaving only one major step before they are demolished.

Courtesy of Karuk Tribe

The Oregon Public Utilities Commission green lighted the license transfer from the private utility to the non-profit Klamath River Renewal Corporation, and to the states of Oregon and California, with their deep pockets. The non-profit was created to oversee the largest dam removal and salmon restoration project in the U.S.

Reflecting on the “long and winding road” to taking out the dams and powerhouses, Oregon PUC Chair Megan Decker said the transfer is “the right path for ratepayers,” largely because a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing of the hydropower dams would have been prohibitively expensive.

Earlier, PacifiCorp agreed to address damages to the 8,000 acres of land associated with the Klamath dam infrastructure, parts of which are a century old. That includes removing underground storage tanks, a debris pile, and burn pit, and remediating the harm.

On July 15, the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved the change in license ownership. It and Oregon signed off on the settlement to demolish the structures reached years earlier between a wide range of stakeholders—PacifiCorp, Native Indian Tribes, irrigation and fishing interests, California and Oregon officials, and environmental groups.

The 163 MW of hydropower on the lower Klamath is located in Northern California and Southern Oregon.  

Taking out the concrete dams and powerhouses has become more critical because of the harsh ongoing drought and drop in flow, harming water quality, fisheries, and communities dependent on the salmon and other fish. Dam removal will reopen more than 420 miles of historic salmon spawning habitat and improve water quality, according to the Department of Interior.

Yurok Tribe representative Amy Cordalis told the CPUC that “crisis conditions are annihilating native salmon stocks and our livelihood.” She said the salmon run is now a fraction of its historical size, some 1% to 3%. Cordalis told a Congressional subcommittee in late May that it was the fifth consecutive year of weak fish runs and the tribe had lost millions of dollars. She blamed much of the catastrophe on “misguided federal policies” to dam free-flowing rivers for electricity, irrigation, and other water supplies.

Until the dams are torn down, they will continue to provide 60 MW of peaking power, PacifiCorp Spokesperson Bob Gravely told Current. That power is far below the 163 MW of nameplate capacity because of environmental and water quality protection constraints.

The remaining big step needed to clear the way for the dams destruction is FERC approval of its own environmental analysis of the removal plan. It is expected to be completed in September 2022. At the end of last week, federal regulatory staff held three meetings to scope out the concerns arising from the Klamath dam removals as part of its environmental assessment.

“I plan to raft down the lower Klamath in early 2023,” said a hopeful Craig Tucker, spokesperson for the Karuk Tribe, who has worked on the issue for a full two decades.

“One hose among 80”

Gravely pointed out that the hydropower dams are less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s generation. He likened the dam demolition to removing one of 80 hoses filling a bathtub. That one hose comprises the  JC Boyle, Copco No 1 and No 2, and the Iron Gate dams.

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PacifiCorp serves 1.9 million in six western states, including Washington, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Its generation includes thousands of megawatts of coal plants slated for retirement over the next several years.

In addition to the four hydropower stations on the lower Klamath River, there are two dams on the upper Klamath, the Link and Keno, both operated to regulate river flows and supply water for irrigation. Neither have hydropower. The Link is owned and operated by the federal Bureau of Reclamation in coordination with PacifiCorp, which owns Keno. Keno will be transferred to the Bureau after the four lower river dams are removed, Gravely said. Installation of modern fish ladders will be required.

Back in 2016, more than 45 different stakeholder groups reached a revised settlement on the dam removals after years of back and forth. Last year, FERC rejected the license transfer from PacifiCorp to the nonprofit Klamath Renewal Corp. as proposed by the settlement because of liability concerns related to the demolition. California and Oregon subsequently agreed to step in as co-licensee and threw in another $45 million for liability protection, on top of the $450 million previously allocated. FERC then approved the transfer.

Tribes focused on FERC relicensing

The initial groundwork on the dam removals was launched by the Tribes dependent on the river and its native fish in the late 1990s. They began building a legal and scientific case to stop FERC from relicensing the dams because of the harm to native and anadromous fish–fish that migrate between fresh and saltwater–some of which had already been wiped out. That includes once plentiful Pink Salmon, Chum and Candlefish. The 50-year license was set to expire in 2006 and the relicensing process began a few years earlier.

Around the same time, dam opponents also took another approach to draw attention to the dams’ harm. They stormed shareholder meetings of the previous owner, Scottish Power, which has a green reputation. The company shortly thereafter sold the dams to MidAmerican affiliate PacifiCorp Power. Protestors traveled to Omaha, Nebraska to appeal to shareholders of parent company Berkshire Hathaway.

In 2007, FERC recommended that any new hydropower license include mandatory fish ladders that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars “and result in net operating losses for the project,” the Congressional Research Service reported.

“Operating the dams is more than they’re worth, no one wants them, but it still has required a Herculean effort to remove them,” Tucker lamented.

Since 2007, the hydropower facilities have been operating under annual license renewals.

Largest dam removal and restoration project in the US.

Smaller dams have been demolished across the US, including PacifiCorp’s Condit Dam on the White Salmon River feeding into the Columbia River, and dams on the Rogue River in Oregon and Kennebec River in Maine.

The biggest dam tear down to date was that of the solo 125 foot high Condit dam in 2011. “On the upstream side of the dam was a large reservoir impounding at least 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment and a significant volume of water. In order to allow the reservoir to safely drain before the removal of the entire structure, 3,000 pounds of explosives blasted an 18-foot wide by 13-foot tall hole at the dam’s base,” according to American Rivers. After the explosion, “the water behind the dam came roaring out of the gaping hole.”

Removing the four lower Klamath Dams will be a much more significant and complex undertaking. “Never before have so many large dams been removed from a single river, at one time,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

Gravely noted the hydropower dams, in their time, were heralded for electrifying parts of the rural West. “Times change,” he said. Now there are other ways to generate power and the focus has shifted to different priorities, including the protection of tribes and salmon runs.

Elizabeth McCarthy

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