It may seem counterintuitive to say that removing dams can be in the best interests of irrigated agriculture, but in the case of the four lower Klamath dams this is precisely the case.
These aging hydroelectric facilities do not in fact store a drop of water for Klamath Irrigation Project farms or ranches — those irrigation water diversions are all hydrologically above the dams.
However, these dams do create serious water quality problems that effectively reduce the water supply available for Klamath Irrigation Project farmers.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) has ultimate jurisdiction over how to manage limited water supplies in Upper Klamath Lake, the main source of water for both federal Klamath Project irrigated agriculture as well as for mandatory minimum flows for fish in the lower Klamath River.
As recently as 2018, the BOR, responding to a court order, released 50,000 acre-feet of additional water from Upper Klamath Lake to mitigate C. shasta disease outbreaks impacting federally protected coho salmon in the lower river. Numerous studies have concluded that these dams significantly worsen water quality, creating the need for seasonal “flushing flows” that address the very C. shasta disease “hotspots” those dams create.
That flushing flows court order is still in place, and the need to send large volumes of water down the river for disease control will remain, so long as the four Klamath dams remain in place.
Additionally, eliminating the broad reservoirs which warm up water and foster massive toxic algae blooms would also reduce annual evaporation by an estimated 12,000 acre-feet a year — additional water in Upper Klamath Lake for a water-starved upper basin.
To clear up another misconception, recent arguments that the “escalation in costs for materials” and labor renders the budget for Klamath dam removal untenable are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of the dam removal plan.
First, the dam removal project is a deconstruction project. Hauling away chunks of concrete is not remotely the same as pouring concrete for building a new structure, so recent spikes in the cost of building materials will not have a significant impact on the dam removal effort. Additionally, Kiewit, the dam removal contractor, has agreed to a guaranteed maximum price for the project, further ensuring that the project will remain within budget.
While dam removal will likely see some minor cost escalation due to the drawn-out FERC process, the existing fully funded $450 million budget has built-in contingency funds to cover potential cost overruns, and was originally calculated (in 2010) to be estimated in inflated 2020 dollars.
Various bonds and insurance backstops also will be in place to contain costs. Those funds also accrue interest, which helps offset inflation. Additionally, the states of Oregon and California, and PacifiCorp, the dams’ owner, have agreed to chip in an additional $45 million if needed.
Any marginal increase to the costs of dam removal and related restoration efforts would still be small compared to increases in costs of constructing new fish ladders and upgrading the dams, which the public utility commissions of both Oregon and California — whose legal obligation is to protect ratepayers — already determined more than 10 years ago was not in the best interests of PacifiCorp customers.
I represent a lot of commercial, family-owned fishing operations. Our members have much in common with Upper Klamath farmers and ranchers. They work long and hard hours trying to make a living using natural resources. This year, Klamath Project farmers don’t have water and fishing families cannot fish because there are so few fish to be had. All the science points to more fish, better water quality, and less pressure on the irrigation system once Klamath dam removal is complete. Klamath dam removal is thus good for fishermen, farmers, Tribes, recreationists and the regional economy.