Dam decision gets fast track

Associated Press file photo The J.C. Boyle dam near Klamath Falls, Ore. is a piece of PacifiCorp's hydroelectric project on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

Team of 45 experts to prepare reports for feds, California

By TAM MOORE

For the Capital Press

MEDFORD, Ore. -- The federal government is on a fast track to decide if removing four Klamath River hydroelectric dams is the right idea.

A study team drawn from three federal departments is under orders to produce a recommendation in less than two years.

"It's a very large environmental question that's being asked," said Dennis Lynch, the project manager. Speaking here at a week-long Klamath Basin science conference, Lynch introduced senior members of the team and gave an overview of the complexity of the effort. They represent the Interior, Commerce and Agriculture departments.

He said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who will ultimately decide the fate of the dams, has asked for a finished report by November 2011. That's well ahead of the spring 2012 deadline for the secretary's determination of whether removal of PacifiCorp hydroelectric dams is in the public interest. A "yes" by Interior, and actions by Congress, would launch the dam removal in 2020.

Stakeholders, which range from irrigators to Native American tribes with treaty rights to groups seeking to protect dwindling salmon runs, crafted two agreements that came out in final form in January after three years of negotiations. Governments and other stakeholders this month are considering signing on to the controversial deal.

The environmental, economic and cultural study envisioned by Lynch and his team of 45 federal experts will attempt to look at the impacts of dam removal from 2020 through 2070.

"A 50-year period is good when you are looking at changes in an ecosystem (that have occurred) and (are trying) to change it back," Lynch said.

Over 300 people participated in the science conference coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey. Lynch is a USGS manager stationed in Portland but is detailed to work full-time on the study.

There was a word of caution Feb. 5 as the conference wound down. It came from Ron Neilson, a research ecologist and climatologist whose ideas led to a popular computer model of interactions between climate and soil. Neilson is part of the U.S. Forest Service research laboratory in Corvallis, Ore.

The Klamath Basin, shared by Oregon and California, is between two large climate regimes dictated by happenings in the Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere above it. That leads to variability in the basin's climate, Neilson said.

"That's going to drive the boat," even as projected increases in global temperatures alter rainfall, duration of snow cover and length of summer dry periods. He suggested that experts look for the biological function, such as desired plant growth or fish survival, and figure out how it might be aided or put under stress by human management actions.

In addition to producing what will amount to a book-length summary of findings with reference material, the Lynch team is charged with doing an environmental impact report under federal standards and a separate report meeting the California Environmental Quality Act. Both call for extensive public participation before a final decision is made. Endangered Species Act protection for some Klamath fish, and a separate 1976 law regulating off-shore commercial salmon populations are both part of the consideration.

Nearly 1,200 farmers within the Klamath Project were refused water in a 2001 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation decision. Reclamation said a drought-limited water supply would be allocated to protect ESA-listed fish in Upper Klamath Lake and coho salmon in the Klamath River.

The project straddling the California-Oregon border has delivered irrigation water each spring since 1907.

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