Dam-busting plan shrouded in mystery

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March 4, 2010

By WAYNE LUSVARDI

Reading about the recent signing of Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement by Governors Ted Kulongoski of Oregon and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, reminds this writer of the tourist traps advertised on huge roadside billboards which are meant to lure motorists that tour the redwoods on U.S. Highway 101 in Northern California and Southern Oregon. One such tourist venue is the “Vortex of Mystery” that is described as a “glimpse of a strange world where the improbable is the commonplace and everyday physical facts are reversed” – see here: http://www.oregonvortex.com/

Environmentalists have dubbed the Klamath River, that runs 250 miles from the volcanic Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon to an ocean outlet near Del Norte in Northern California, the “upside-down river.” This is because it unnaturally drains water from lakes and rivers to irrigate 200,000 acres of farmland and provides electricity for 70,000 homes in Portland and Seattle. But the Klamath River might be termed upside down for very different reasons if California’s proposed water bill is passed on the November ballot.

The proposed water bill package meant to build new dams for drought relief in California contains a weird and paradoxical provision to fund $250 million for part of the demolition of four dams. It is weird because the dams to be demolished are on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon. And it is paradoxical because it would eliminate clean hydroelectric power on the Klamath River and replace it with costly natural gas-fired power plants that pollute the air and allegedly contribute to “global warming.”

You might ask how a so-called California water bill that was meant to combat drought by building two new dams in California end up demolishing four dams in Oregon? And how could a water bill touted as being so “green” end up so brown?  And why would so-called urban elites in Portland and Seattle not more strongly oppose the resulting air pollution from the dam removal project equal to 102,000 cars?

To answer these perplexing and mysterious questions we have to first understand what the Cal water bill package on the November ballot is and how it proposes to partly fund the Klamath Basin Restoration Project and Hydropower Settlement Agreement along the Klamath River that proposes to restore the Klamath to a “wild river.”

Dam Removal as a “Lose-Lose” Proposition?

In response to a “normal” three-year drought and a two-year court-ordered shut-down of water deliveries from the Sacramento Delta to Southern California, California legislators have responded with a flotilla of water bills (SB1, SB2, SB6, SB7, SB8 all in 2009) that have been rolled into a water bill package that will be on the November ballot. Included is an $11.1 billon water bond.  For an expanded analysis of the water bill go here.

The proposed California water bill will paradoxically facilitate the elimination of approximately $1 billion net worth of clean hydroelectric power in Oregon and incur roughly an equal billion dollars in costs to remove dams along the Oregon reach of the Klamath River. On its surface the proposal sounds like a “lose-lose” proposition.

$250 million dollars of the California water bill package is dedicated for partial funding of the removal of four dams along the Klamath River in Southern Oregon including the hydroelectric facilities that accompany the dams. The remainder of the dam removal costs would come from the ratepayers of the Warren Buffett-owned PacifiCorp that owns the dams ($200 million) and the federal government ($500 million plus), extending out to 2020. The four dams are to be removed reportedly because it would cost Pacificorp $300 million to install “fish ladders” on the dams as a condition of renewing their permit to operate the dams.

But $300 million for fish ladders could be a more cost-effective solution than $1 billion in dam removal costs, the elimination of $1 billion net present value in clean hydro power, significant costs to build new polluting gas-fired power plants in Oregon, and wiping out farmers along the Oregon reach of the Klamath. No mention has been made as to whether dam removal is a way to naturally remove costly silt build-up behind the dams, the first of which was built in 1918 and the last built in 1962. But perhaps the mystery behind such a seemingly costly dam removal project can be explained for other reasons as will be elaborated below.

Klamath as “Upside-Down” River

Environmentalists claim that the Klamath River is turned “upside down” by farming and hydro power that is made possible by the four dams along the Oregon reach of the river. Hay and fertilizer contain nitrogen that mixes with river water. The nitrification process pools in stagnant areas above the dams and results in algae blooms and reduced oxygen as water temperatures rise.  The result is a warm river water ecosystem that is ecologically unsupportive to salmon and a dam infrastructure that blocks the ocean water salmon from spawning upstream in fresh water lakes and rivers. “Wilding” the Klamath River would result in colder and more oxygen rich water supportive to Coho salmon, suckers and Bull Trout.

Environmentalists have labeled blue-green algae as “toxic algae” and as the culprit created by dams and farms that warms the river water. Blue green algae is nearly a perfect bogeyman for being labeled “toxic:” it forms a scum pond where stagnant water is, it emits obnoxious odors, and is considered a visual nuisance as well as a potential, albeit remote, health hazard.

But all that damming the Klamath did was shift from a food chain that once was conducive to cold-water fish (salmon, trout, suckers) to that which is now supportive to warm-water fish (bass, sunfish, crapple, catfish, yellow perch, and “walleye”). All that happened was a shift from a grazing food chain to more of a detritus food chain that loves to eat garbage and pond scum. If you want a Coho Salmon and you get a Channel Catfish, you call the river “polluted.”  Ecologically, the Klamath can be operated either way: as a warm-water ecology or a cold-water ecology.  The trade-off from originally building the dams along the Klamath never was the ecology, but economic and aesthetic values that can be sold to the public for other ends. Salmon “die-offs” and ugly “toxic algae blooms” become the media spectacles shown to the public as justification for removing the dams and hydropower plants. But never mentioned is that removing dams will also destroy the listing warm-water ecology and species of fish along the Klamath River. Which ecology is “endangered?”

Reviving Klamath River Diversion Project?

If there is no rational cost or environmental reason for the removal of the dams what else might explain it? We are left with speculation but it is nonetheless intriguing and not without historical precedent.

What seems to have been long forgotten is what was once called the “Klamath Diversion Project” proposed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during the 1960s. This ambitious project would have diverted the waters of the Klamath River in Oregon and Northern California to arid Southern California. Initially, this proposal would have allowed for other states in the Southwestern U.S. (Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah) to receive a larger share of waters of the Colorado River by supplanting Southern California’s allotment of Colorado River Water with Klamath River water. A tunnel running most of the length of the state of California was proposed to carry Klamath River water to the Sacramento River, around the Sacramento Delta, and then southward under the Tehachapi Mountains to the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

The Klamath is the second largest river system in California and carries almost as much water as the Colorado River. The original 1960s diversion plan would have mostly destroyed any salmon runs and habitats and, thus, was originally opposed by the Yurok Indian Tribe and commercial fishermen. Interestingly, in the 1960s the city of Los Angeles reportedly viewed the Klamath Diversion as a “ploy to encourage it to relinquish its claim on the share of the river [the Colorado] it considered its own” (Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert, 1984, p. 270).

Removable Dam Removals?

Another quandary is that there is no guarantee within the presently proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Project for removal of the dams.  The U.S. Secretary of the Interior holds the final decision as to whether removing the dams is in the “public interest.” Thus, Oregon Wild, the Hoopa Valley Indian Tribe and The Environmental Center in Oregon are opposing the dam removal project.

Approval by farmers, fishermen and environmentalists is contingent upon consent to the Klamath Watersharing Agreement. Moreover, it is not clear what veto power local governments along the Klamath might have. And the litigation potential of this ambitious project is reportedly considered “high.”

Initial minor opposition to the project by affected urban elites in Oregon and Washington can perhaps be explained for other reasons. In 2000, New York Times columnist and pop sociologist David Brooks wrote a book titled Bobo’s in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.  Bobo’s is a shorthand term for a new social class between the “Bourgeois” and “Bohemians.” What Brooks was referring to were the “greenies” in enclaves like Portland and Seattle who pride them selves in “smart growth” and saving rural farmland from urban “sprawl.” Slowing California-style suburbanization, removing dams and restoring the Klamath River to a wild condition seems justification enough to Bobo’s living in their coastal urban villages in Portland and Seattle.

Water Ouija Board

On its face, the Klamath River dam removal project makes no sense economically or environmentally.  What the Klamath River dam removal project indicates is that the California water package bill is possibly larger in scope than we have been led to believe.  Everything seems to be in play on the giant regional water chessboard if the California water package bill is passed. The bill would apparently turn “upside down” the entire existing water system in the southwestern U.S., whether it is dam removals in Oregon, the Colorado River Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA) which divvies up the river water to nearby states; and even perhaps puts on the negotiating table the infamous Sacramento Delta Peripheral Canal Project. As a sign says at the Oregon Vortex amusement in Oregon: “We know practically nothing about anything” (Charles F. Kettering).

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  1. CaptBill
    CaptBill 21 July, 2018, 19:23

    This dam removal project is a sham, and will devastate the environment to make wealthy people wealthier.
    The many rare and endangered species that would be killed by the removal of the Iron Gate and Copco Dams and the resulting pollution rises to the level of being catastrophic.

    Any kid in a schoolyard knows trading a dozen marbles for one is a bad deal.

    In this case the ‘dam insanity’ involves wiping-out a complex interrelated system of ecosystems, which includes the rarest of all ecosystems, the freshwater shoreline ecosystem, and the rare, threatened and endangered species that live in these unique habitats, in exchange for a salmon that might be able to migrate through a trickle of polluted 80-degree water over 20-miles of black basalt rocks.

    A handful of intellectually dishonest scientists and people have conjectured and asserted such an impossibility (the salmon) is the case, but we all know there are incentives for their cooperation.

    However, common sense and local knowledge (see email herein below from a 4th generation rancher on the Klamath River) supported by the best science says the Klamath Dams support and greatly benefit a multitude of species ranging from endangered and rare fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, as well as humans. This is why a super-majority (79%) of voters on Siskiyou County (where 3 of 4 dams are located) said ‘NO’ to dam removal.

    Like many other people, I have personally seen threatened and endangered species in and around Iron Gate Lake where I live. And so has a credible fisheries biologist working with SWCA. If this information is disregarded, plan on one of the largest environmental lawsuits ever seen is these endangered species and their habitats are destroyed by the lust for more money; the real driver of dam removal.

    And lets not forget, the recent catastrophic Klamathon Wildfire, which consumed nearly 37,000 acres of Siskiyou County (including about 2,500 acres of the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument), which was only stopped using hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that was drafted from Iron Gate Lake formed one of the Klamath Dams by engines, tenders and helicopters. That lake, its close proximity and readily available water along with many courageous fire fighters saved an American treasure; the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. And that is an indisputable fact. I know, since that wildfire nearly took our ranch coming 1.5 miles from it, and I spend 7-days on the Camp Creek fire line helping the commanders anyway I could. In 2014, the Oregon Gulch Fire in the Cacade Siskiyou National Monument was also stopped because of water drafted from Copco Lake (#2).

    Of course the millions of cubic yards of clay based sediments that is laden with anthropogenic pollution if released from behind the dams will literally devastate the entirety of the Klamath River downstream for decades. That alone is reason enough not to proceed.

    Now with recent catastrophic Klamathon Fire, the mountains and valleys have been laid bare and red clay soils covered with ash will easily erode into the creeks and streams.

    The vegetation that normally stabilized the local red clay soils in the Scotch Creek drainage and Camp Creek drainage is gone. And as soon as the normal fall and winter rains come, both of these creeks flowing into Iron Gate Lake will be heavily laden with clay and ash sediments. And without the presence of the fine sediment settling effect of a lake, these clay sediments will adversely affect the fisheries in the Klamath River. Excessive turbidity is lethal for fish and fish eggs and increases the rates of mortality of both fish and fish eggs, as is stated in this study:

    “EIFAC also commented that …although several thousand parts per million solids may not kill fish during several hours or days exposure such temporary high concentrations should be prevented in rivers where good fisheries are to be maintained.”… “The spawning grounds of salmon and trout require special consideration and should be kept as free as possible from finely divided solids.”

    Already the mental and emotion distress created by these scant few illogical individuals and perpetrated upon the overwhelming masses of local American voters due to the potential loss of their valuable resources is most unreasonable and illogical.

    William E. Simpson II

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