When it comes to removing four hydroelectric dams on the lower Klamath River, the long-term benefits for fish and water quality would far outweigh any short-term negative impacts, according to a draft environmental report by the California State Water Resources Control Board.

The nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corp., or KRRC, has proposed taking out the Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate dams in California, as well as the J.C. Boyle Dam in Oregon. Owned by PacifiCorp, the dams have a combined generating capacity of about 160 megawatts, but also block access to 400 miles of upstream habitat for salmon and steelhead in the Klamath River and its tributaries.

The KRRC submitted plans to remove the dams to federal energy regulators in June 2018, but first the organization must secure a Section 401 permit under the Clean Water Act in both states, requiring extensive review in California under the state’s Environmental Quality Act.

Mark Bransom, CEO of the KRRC, said the 1,800-page draft Environmental Impact Report released Dec. 27 is a key step to moving the project forward in California.

“It’s a sign of meaningful progress, and I look forward to a thorough KRRC review of the report and its proposals,” Bransom said.

The project already secured Section 401 water quality certification from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in September 2018, which Bransom said was a significant milestone.

By removing the lower Klamath River dams, the KRRC expects to open fish passage for migrating salmon and steelhead listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. The California State Water Resources Control Board’s draft report analyzes the impacts on all natural resources, including air quality, water quality, recreation and agriculture.

While breaching the dams would cause short-term increases of sediment in the river, it would ultimately result in long-term benefits in water temperature, quality and wildlife habitat, the report states. Overall, the board determined the project “would result in significantly more identified benefits for environmental resources,” versus leaving one or more of the dams in place.

“We’re very encouraged by the analysis that supports that conclusion,” Bransom said.

As for impacts on agriculture, Bransom said water releases for farms and fish would still be controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation out of Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon. Removing the dams should not have any direct effect on river flows or irrigation, he added. In fact, Bransom said removing the dams may help farmers over the long haul.

The Bureau of Reclamation currently is responsible for releasing additional water to flush away a deadly fish-killing parasite, known as C. shasta, in the Klamath River. But if river conditions improve, it could lessen or eliminate the need for so-called “flushing flows,” and potentially make more water available for irrigation.

“If we can improve the fishery, we can do things that are positive for agriculture. I think this is one example,” Bransom said.

Tracey Liskey, owner of Liskey Farms in Klamath Falls and a former member of the Oregon Board of Agriculture, said he and other farmers in the Klamath Project are anxious to see dam removal go forward, so the ESA might loosen its grip on the region.

“Agriculture is behind trying to save the fish, so we can get more water,” Liskey said. “Hopefully we’ll have more salmon than we know what to do with.”

Bransom said full dam removal will cost approximately $400 million, according to current estimates, though that total is subject to change. The KRRC budget is $450 million, with $200 million from PacifiCorp ratepayers between the two states, and up to $250 million from California Proposition 1 — a massive $7.5 billion statewide water bond that passed in 2014.

If all goes according to schedule, Bransom said they hope to start deconstruction by 2021. However, Bransom added they still have multiple regulatory hurdles left to clear.

California’s draft Environmental Impact Report is available for public review and comment until Feb. 26. A final report is expected later during the summer. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must also decide whether to transfer the dams’ operating license to the KRRC. That review is ongoing.

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