Four hydroelectric dams blocking fish passage along the lower Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern California are slated for removal under a “Definite Plan” filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The dams — J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate — were built between 1911 and 1962, and are currently operated by PacifiCorp with a combined generation capacity of 169 megawatts.

FERC is now considering a proposal to transfer the project’s license to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit organization that intends to decommission and tear out the dams. If regulators approve the transfer, dam deconstruction could begin by 2021, opening access for salmon and steelhead to around 400 miles of habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries.

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation, or KRRC, formed in 2016 as part of the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, signed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, along with the states of Oregon and California, PacifiCorp, local tribes, government agencies, irrigation districts, commercial fishing and conservation groups.

Together, they appointed the KRRC to take ownership and eventually demolish the dams as part of the settlement.

Mark Bransom, executive director of the KRRC, is a former instructor at Oregon State University and senior vice president in water resources and environmental management for CH2M HILL companies, a Colorado-based engineering firm. He said the 2,300-page Definite Plan, submitted June 28 to FERC is a “major milestone” in the dam removal process.

“We believe we have provided FERC with everything they have requested to this point,” Bransom said.

The plan describes in detail how the KRRC will draw down reservoirs and remove the dams, while also protecting fisheries, rehabilitating construction sites and mitigating community impacts — such as replacing a water supply pipeline for the city of Yreka, Calif., that crosses the Klamath River near the upstream end of the reservoir behind Iron Gate Dam.

Estimates peg the project cost at around $398 million, though Bransom said the KRRC will begin soliciting to hire a construction contractor some time in the next month, which will determine the “guaranteed maximum cost.”

The KRRC has a total budget of up to $450 million, with PacifiCorp ratepayers contributing $200 million and $250 million coming from California Proposition 1, a massive $7.5 billion statewide water bond that passed in 2014.

Removing the four dams should benefit migratory salmon and steelhead, Bransom said, not only boosting upstream passage but improving water quality by restoring a more free and natural flow to the river.

“It’s not hard to appreciate that the Klamath River is a working river,” Bransom said. “It has been overtaxed with regard to allocation of water and other resources in the basin.”

That has led to decades of conflicts and lawsuits seeking to balance water for fish and water for 230,000 acres of irrigated agriculture within Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project.

In 2017, a federal judge ruled in favor of two California tribes, ordering additional flows in the Klamath River to flush away a deadly salmon-killing parasite known as C. shasta. The bureau released 38,425 acre-feet of water from Upper Klamath Lake in April and 50,000 acre-feet in May to comply with the order, which delayed water for farmers and ranchers until June.

Though the dams targeted for removal on the lower Klamath River do not hold any water for irrigation, Bransom said it may ultimately benefit farmers and ranchers in the long run.

“If the water quality can be improved through dam removal and (create) a more natural flow regime in the river, the flushing flows and dilution flows held in Upper Klamath Lake may or may not continue to be required,” he said. “That is water that could be held in the Klamath Project for agricultural purposes.”

Scott White, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said he wants to believe that is true, though nothing has been guaranteed in writing.

White said irrigators are frustrated to see the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement revived and moving forward, while the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement — another hard-fought agreement that would have guaranteed water for agriculture — has been left for dead after Congress failed to approve the deal in 2015.

The Klamath Tribes also filed another lawsuit earlier this year seeking an injunction for more water in Upper Klamath Lake to protect two endangered species of sucker fish. A hearing in that case is scheduled for July 20 in a federal courtroom in San Francisco.

“The path we’re going down with litigation is not working, and it’s never going to work,” White said. “Until the parties can sit down and talk about these issues face to face, this basin is just going to continue to spiral out of control.”

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