SACRAMENTO — Proponents say an updated plan to remove four dams from the Klamath River doesn’t skirt the U.S. Constitution or leave out opportunities for public debate.
In their first announced public meeting since announcing their plan last month, officials from Oregon, California and the federal government said it’s perfectly appropriate to seek dam removal approval through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“In my opinion, we’re not trying anything new here,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife director Charlton Bonham said during the March 16 hearing at the state Environmental Protection Agency headquarters. He added the FERC process for removing dams has existed since the 1920s.
Richard Whitman, natural resources adviser to Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown, said no interstate compact is being made to set up the “non-federal” entity that would take control of the dams from owner PacifiCorp and handle their removal.
“It’s easy to get confused about this entity,” Whitman said. “That corporation is an independent corporation that is not an instrument of the states of Oregon or California.”
He also said the state is willing to help farming and ranching communities in Klamath County, where Commissioner Tom Mallams contends the dams’ removal would cost the county as much as $500,000 in annual revenue and take away local jobs.
Mallams, who attended the meeting, said he would like to see a settlement that resolves water issues in the Klamath Basin but wants the county “left whole.”
The exchanges came amid a sometimes contentious afternoon of haggling over language in the 133-page “agreement in principle” announced Feb. 2 by PacifiCorp, the states of Oregon and California and the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce. The new agreement was reached after Congress failed to authorize the original Klamath Basin water-sharing agreements by the end of 2015.
The March 16 meeting was attended by representatives from most of the 42 original signatories to the 2010 agreements as well as critics, who in recent weeks have accused dam-removal proponents of meeting in secret and claimed the private entity created under the new plan would still need congressional approval.
The latter argument is based on a legal opinion issued in late January by Oregon Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnston, who opined the private entity amounted to an interstate compact that must be authorized by Congress under the Constitution. But Whitman said Johnston’s opinion was based on language from the original agreements and not the new pact, which the Oregon Department of Justice has assured him is legally sound.
“The amendments we’re discussing today are an agreement to a private party to handle removal of its dams,” he said.
The meeting began as a veritable rehashing of a more than decade-long debate over dam removal, as public officials given a chance to make opening statements argued in favor of or against the idea. Grace Bennett, chairwoman of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, argued removing the dams is unnecessary to help fish and would expose area residents to risks from the built-up sediment and loss of flood control and water supply.
“This is our livelihood, this is our watershed, this is our home,” Bennett said. “For two decades, the county government has worked with landowners and water users to improve fish habitat and water quality in a successful effort to reverse the last century’s trend of declining salmon runs.”
But Humboldt County Supervisor Mark Lovelace said his county supports dam removal “in this instance” because it will lead to benefits to downstream farms, recreation, the fishing fleet and other on-shore industries.
“Every boat is a small business — an independently owned, family-owned small business,” Lovelace said.
Proponents hope to craft a final version of their agreement and have all the original signatories on board with it by the end of this month, although Klamath Tribes chairman Don Gentry said the final pact would have to be put to tribal members for a vote.
The proponents are also beginning work on a separate pact that would continue the water-sharing arrangements and fisheries improvements in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, they said.