Salazar waits for legislation authorizing him to act on dams
By TIM HEARDEN
YREKA, Calif. -- Despite a major setback this week, signers of the 2-year-old agreement to seek the dismantling of four dams on the Klamath River say they will not abandon their efforts.
However, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement on Feb. 27 that he would not be able to determine the project's feasibility by a March 31 deadline shows that plenty of obstacles remain -- at the federal, state and local levels.
Salazar mainly blamed Congress' lack of movement on a bill by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., that would authorize the $1.1 billion dam removal and environmental restoration project, which would include $536 million in new federal funds.
The legislation -- which now sits in the respective House and Senate natural resources committees -- needs to pass for Salazar to act. Klamath Water Users Association executive director Greg Addington said he wants the committees to schedule a hearing soon.
"That's our big focus right now," he said. "My point is let's have a hearing on the legislation and get people on the record -- opponents and proponents alike -- to air this thing out."
Merkley and Thompson introduced their bill in November just as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was taking written comments on the projects' draft environmental analyses, which claim that removing the four hydroelectric dams would create jobs and significantly increase salmon harvests without directly affecting farmers' water supplies in the basin.
Merkley is working "to educate members as to the importance of his bill, understanding that, for many, this is the first they have heard of the effort to end water disputes" in the basin, spokeswoman Julie Edwards told the Capital Press in an e-mail.
But the bill's passage is anything but certain. It faces stiff opposition from lawmakers including Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who last year authored amendments to strip $1.9 million for Klamath River dam removal studies from a stopgap spending measure. He called the project "madness" during a floor speech in September.
So what if the bill doesn't pass?
"There's quite a bit that can still happen absent congressional authority," said Bob Gravely, spokesman for PacifiCorp, which owns the dams. "We're continuing to collect dam removal surcharges and we're exchanging engineering drawings with the feds. All the environmental mitigation work we can continue to implement without the secretarial determination. You can't get to that final step of actual dam removal (without Congress), but that's not supposed to happen until 2020 anyway."
Congress' perceived foot-dragging isn't the only obstacle. For Salazar to make a decision, cash-strapped California still must identify a source for financing its share of the costs, which it is not close to doing, acknowledged Mark Stopher, environmental program manager for the state Department of Fish and Game.
Factors that could determine California's level of participation include whether the chosen alternative will be to fully or partially remove the dams and whether a planned $11.1 billion water bond makes it to the ballot, he said.
"There are just too many moving parts," Stopher said. "While we're moving forward with (final environmental documents), the key uncertainty does have to do with the status of the federal legislation."
Meanwhile, Siskiyou County, Calif. -- whose voters in 2010 overwhelmingly passed a resolution opposing dam removal -- threatened to sue the federal government over what it sees as various failings in Salazar's determination process, county counsel Thomas Guarino said in an e-mail. County supervisors Jim Cook and Michael Kobseff were in Washington, D.C., to meet with Salazar chief of staff Laura Davis at the time the delay was announced.
If delays persist, the original signatories could agree to revise their proposal to extend deadlines or make other changes, or PacifiCorp could opt to try to relicense the dams, several of the signers said. But they emphasized they weren't close to any such decisions.
"When we wrote the agreement we were not nave, " said Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe's Klamath coordinator. "We understood when we penned the agreement there was all this uncertainty. ... We built some flexibility into the agreement so if we had trouble, we'd have time to keep working through.
"Everyone told us from Day One we'd never pull this off," he said. "Every time people told us we couldn't do it, we huddled up and came up with a game plan. ... I have a lot of confidence that this group will find a way."
Klamath Economic Restoration Act: http://www.klamathrestoration.org/images/stories/pdfs/11-8-11_Klamath_Legislation_Draft_END11921.pdf
Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement studies and EIS/EIR: http://klamathrestoration.gov