home > Klamath dams FQA
Frequently Asked Questions on Klamath Dam Removal
Q: How will dam removal impact Klamath water quality? Is it true that the river has always had bad water quality in the summer time?
A:While upstream water pollution (mostly excess nutrients) does play a role in Klamath water quality, the reservoirs formed by PacifiCorp's dams are responsible for very specific and very serious water quality problems.
First, the dams change a free-flowing, turbulent system into a placid lake environment, with warm and stagnant water. This allows toxic algae to flourish, and results in summer and fall releases of water with illegally high pH and low dissolved oxygen - lethal conditions for fish. Scientists have shown that the high temperatures associated with these releases can also limit salmon spawning success and egg survival. Ironically, water released from the dams in the spring is unusually cold and has been shown to slow the growth rate of juvenile salmon, making them less likely to survive to maturity and spawn.
PacifiCorp's dams also alter the shape and flow characteristics of the river downstream, which creates another set of problems. Before the Klamath was dammed, the growth of aquatic vegetation was kept in check by periodic high flows turning gravels and "roughing up" the riverbed. Sediment and gravels are now trapped behind the dams, and flows are even and carefully regulated. With small gravels long since washed downstream, and no flows large enough to turn the remaining boulders and scour the riverbed, algae and aquatic plants grow to unusually high densities. These rich algae beds create the perfect habitat for the worms that host the deadly fish parasites associated with Klamath River fish kills.
Increased water temperatures, high pH, and low dissolved oxygen combine with increased habitat for parasite hosts to create a deadly cocktail for Klamath salmon. At the root of all of these problems are PacifiCorp's Klamath River dams.
A: In order to relicense it's dams, PacifiCorp must first obtain a 401 "clean water" permit from Oregon and California. When PacifiCorp realized the water quality impacts stemming from its dams made the issuance of this permit unlikely at best, it opted to negotiate a dam removal deal, INSTEAD of pursuing a new operating license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
In its first draft, the terms of this dam removal deal require the California Water Board to ignore PacifiCorp's heinous water quality violations and suspend the 401 permitting process. In fact, if the 401 process is re-started, PacifiCorp reserves the right to reneg on the deal! This means the dams' water quality impacts would continue until the proposed dam removal date of 2020 without any regulation, and potentially longer if PacifiCorp backs out via any of the other off-ramps it has designed into the deal.
Predictably, neither Klamath Riverkeeper nor the Water Board are happy with this scenario. KRK is now urging the Water Board to demand that the deal be rewritten to include clean water regulation, or else to reinstate the 401 process - even if it kills the dam removal deal.
A: The only scenario under which PacifiCorp can actually generate a profit from the Klamath dams is status quo operations in which the dams continue to run with no fish passage, and PacifiCorp is not held accountable for heinous water quality violations. Status quo operations are illegal under many federal laws, including the Clean Water Act. However, the longer PacifiCorp can delay removal, the more money they make at the expense of the Klamath fishery and Klamath water quality. Many stakeholders are also suspicious that numerous off-ramps within the draft dam removal deal enable PacifiCorp to back out at the last minute, meaning a 10-15 year regulatory process could reinitiate right before 2020, putting off dam removal to 2030 or later.
A: The "settlement negotiations," as they're commonly called, were triggered by the expiration of PacifiCorp's operating licenses for its Klamath dams and the subsequent calls for their removal by stakeholders throughout the Klamath basin. For the last three years, nearly 30 groups participated in a series of facilitated meetings in an attempt to reach an agreement on whether or not the dams should be relicensed. In most cases, settlement processes, rather than Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decisions, are the means by which dams are actually removed in the United States.
These stakeholder groups represented almost everyone with a stake in the health of the Klamath River, including all four Native Tribes, many government and state agencies, nonprofit conservation groups, and watershed councils. The High Country News feature Peace on the Klamath describes this process from the vantage point of the Yurok Tribe and the Klamath Water Users Association. The Klamath Riverkeeper website features a short list of news and opinion pieces about the settlement as well.
The draft Klamath Restoration Agreement (KBRA) was finally released early this year, making national news and garnering some controversy among a few environmental groups outside the basin, as well as pro-dam advocates within the basin. You can read the agreement and its official press release online.
Q: Does the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement mean the dams are coming out?
A: Though many headlines led the public to believe that dam removal was imminent upon release of the draft KBRA in early 2008, in fact the crown jewel of dam removal can only proceed with PacifiCorp's cooperation. Dam removal, as well as ratification of the rest of the KBRA, rests on the outcome of a separate but parallel Agreement in Principle to remove the dams which is currently in draft form and scheduled for finalization in June 2009.
Q: Why is there some controversy over the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement?
A:The most vocal opponents of the KRA have been environmentalists such as Oregon Wild who do not like that the KRA allows ongoing farming of the Klamath Wildlife Refuges and who feel that the KRA's flow regime gives unfair advantage to irrigators, a contention echoed by the Hoopa Valley Tribe.
A scientific response addressing concerns the settlement underallocates water for fish was released this spring.
Some stakeholders point out that Oregon Wild is itself at fault for unstrategically introducing the issue of farming on the wildlife refuges into an arena where compromise in that regard was unlikely. Despite the fact that other groups may have been sympathetic to the idea of reducing agricultural impacts on wildlife refuges, they may have felt that the restoration agreement negotiations were an inappropriate place to attain this goal. When stakeholders dissolved the negotiations midway through, they were re-initiated without Oregon Wild so as to continue with negotiations minus the looming threat of total stalemate. Other stakeholders noted by way of explanation that while Tribes and farmers needed a negotiated solution to the ongoing Klamath Crisis in order to keep food on the table, Oregon Wild could continue to be grant-funded even if (or especially if) crisis continues in the Klamath Basin.
Proponents of the KRA note that it represents a series of earnest compromises for all parties involved, and therefore paves the way for formerly warring factions to work together in the future. The Klamath basin has been gridlocked by conflict over water management for many years, and every group that depends on the Klamath, including farmers, Tribes and fishermen, has suffered as a result. These groups whose livelihoods are directly affected by the Klamath generally support the settlement because it forges an end to the Klamath Crisis that has threatened their families and communities and sets forth a blueprint for sharing scarce resources.
Klamath Riverkeeper was not party to the settlement negotiations. Klamath Riverkeeper remains neutral on the KRA, and continues to advocate for the removal of PacifiCorp's dams as the cornerstone of water quality and fisheries restoration on the river.
Q: Why not just build bypass channels around the dams instead of removing them?
A: Constructing fish passage channels around the dams may seem like a logical way to satisfy the interests of numerous parties. However, fish passage is only one of several issues that have prompted so many people to advocate for the removal of the dams.
1. Right now, up to 90% of Chinook juveniles may die in the stretch immediately below Iron Gate dam. This is because the dams themselves create the conditions that the fish parasites thrive in. First, the reservoirs heat Klamath water to unnatural levels that are favorable for the proliferation of fish parasites. Second, by interrupting the natural flow and sediment cycles of the river, the dams create abnormal substrate conditions immediately below the dams. Normally, gravels and cobbles would be flushed of excess vegetation during variable flows, and gravels lost to downstream flow would be replaced by those rolling in from tributaries and upstream. The dams cut off the ability of the river bottom to "clean" itself, while removing gravel inputs from upstream and storing them in increasingly large piles behind the dams themselves. The algal growth that accumulates on the river bottom below Iron Gate, when coupled with abnormally high water temperatures, creates conditions highly lethal to baby fish, and perhaps responsible for some of the dramatic decline we've seen in spring Chinook over the years.
2. Engineering fish passage channels around the dams would be very expensive, in fact up to hundreds of millions of dollars more than removing the dams and replacing the power. This cost will go directly to PacifiCorp's ratepayers and cause increased rates for the next 30 years, even though the Klamath dams provide relatively little of PacifiCorp's energy portfolio (<2%).
3. Fish passage channels do not address the reservoirs' toxic algae problem, which is growing worse every year. The California Water Board has told the press that dam removal may be the only way to adequately address this problem. PacifiCorp's scientists are trying "band-aid" solutions to the algae problem, none of which have shown any promise of working. Algicides will dramatically affect the food web and ultimately impact salmon and humans. "Mixing" the water column with solar-powered "mixers" has proven almost impossible to carry out on a scale that would actually impact the algae, and has cost PacifiCorp quite a bit of money so far. Meanwhile, scientists are still documenting algae blooms with microcystin levels 4000 times what the World Health Organization considers a moderate risk to human health, the river is closed to recreational contact during fishing, rafting, and ceremonial seasons, and scientists have shown that eating yellow perch caught in the reservoirs could be harmful or even lethal.
4. The power the dams provide can be replaced by truly renewable sources at less or equal cost to building fish bypass channels or fish ladders.
Since the dams create reservoirs that breed toxic algae ABOVE the dams and fish-killing parasites BELOW the dams, the are not a benign or "renewable" source of electricity. Especially when you factor in the lack of fish passage. Building a side channel or fish ladders would be very expensive to engineer, and building four of them could reduce the percentage of fish who make it to Link River and Keno Dams, where they will still have to navigate two more fish ladders. Because this represents such a huge investment in infrastructure, FERC, in its Final Environmental Impact Report, suggested trucking the fish around the dams rather than building fish ladders. This is a strategy that Bonneville has employed on the Columbia and has only been responsible for more and more fish runs making it on to the Endangered Species Act, further complicating the lives of al basin residents.
Q: How will we replace the power?
A: To be clear, the four Klamath dams targeted for removal produce about 160 mW of power. This is a small fraction of PacifICorp's portfolio, and .3% of California's 50,000 mW rated capacity. This amount of power can be exchanged for truly renewable power sources at less than or equal cost to upgrading the dams for fish passage.
Dam removal on the Klamath is complex, and not easily reduced to a "river restoration" or even "environmental justice" issue, though it certainly incorporates major elements of both. At the root of the problem, however, are hard questions about our society's use of energy, and the trade-offs we are willing to make in order to keep unlimited electricity flowing to an ever expanding population.
Energy corporations would have us believe we are facing a set of very limited choices: "clean, green, and cheap" hydropower vs. fossil fuels; unregulated energy exploration and production vs. scarcity and blackouts; the status quo energy industry vs. unreliable and expensive alternatives. In reality, our choices are much broader than this, and we need to expand the dialogue beyond the narrow confines that keeps energy corporations making record profits as they plunder and destroy our nation's ecosystems and rural communities.
First, large-scale hydropower production is neither clean, green, nor cheap. On the Klamath, dams are directly responsible for creating outrageous levels of toxic algae and breeding fish parasites that may kill up to 90% of the river's juvenile Chinook. Methane emissions from decaying organic matter on the world's largest hydroprojects are also the single largest source of human-caused releases of methane - which is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, dams block migrating fish and turbines kill them. On the Klamath this means one species of salmon is on the Endangered Species List, and several more are on their way. Mitigating the impacts of lack of fish passage, rampant disease outbreaks, and loss of livelihood for Native and commercial fishing communities costs taxpayers millions, if not over a billion, on the West Coast's major salmon rivers every year.
Still have questions? Email them to malena [at] klamathriver.org.