Letters from the West

Dam lessons for Snake River, Northwest from Klamath River situation

The conservative U.S. House members who refused to allow an agreement that included removing four dams on the Klamath River in northern California and southwest Oregon now have to explain to the 1,200 farmers who would have gotten precious water why they were left high and dry.

The power company PacifiCorp, the states of California and Oregon, and the Interior Department announced this week an agreement to go to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for permission to remove the dams without congressional approval. Such requests, when all of the major parties are in agreement, have become routine.

You might remember when Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, former Idaho governor, orchestrated the original pact in 2008. It ended a decade-old fight between farmers and tribes over water rights and salmon protection. It also resolved PacifiCorp’s problem with relicensing the dams, which would have cost hundreds of millions for its customers, including $61 million from Eastern Idaho customers.

The tribes, with senior water rights recognized in Oregon state court, would have subordinated their senior rights so farmers had access to the water they needed in exchange for a large grant to purchase forest land. The federal government would have paid $200 million of the cost of removing the dams, and the state of California would have paid the other $225 million.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, along with other influential Republicans, said they would not approve the deal if removing dams was involved. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., wrote an alternative bill they supported, but it had had no chance of getting support from the Senate.

So PacifiCorp decided to pay the $200 million federal share itself. California will pay its part. The tribes get to keep their senior water rights and see the dams removed. Only the farmers, most of whom share Bishop’s opposition to removal, are left with nothing.

All of Oregon’s leaders, both Democratic and Republican, say they will push some form of legislation to help the farmers get the benefits outlined in the original agreement.

The story offers lessons for people on both sides of the debate on removing Snake River dams to help imperiled salmon species, as well as for people who reject the kind of collaboration that led to Kempthorne’s Klamath agreement.

For people who want the dams removed, the Klamath deal’s failure demonstrates how hard it would be to get Congress to authorize removing the four lower Snake dams in Washington even if the science and economics are clear and the Pacific Northwest supports it. The dam culture runs deep in Western politics and can overwhelm even everyone’s best interests.

That should please dam backers. But it should also give pause to those who stand at the ramparts, rejecting any new way to build common ground out of previously polarized positions.

The Klamath dam removers found a path around Congress’ recalcitrance, and now the dams may go before any of the rest of the deal gets done, if it ever does.