Driving down U.S. Route 97 this past September in the Lower Klamath Basin in Oregon, Klamath Water Users Association Executive Director Greg Addington told me he expected the settlement talks to end in November.
"The settlement talks?" a reporter with the California Farm Bureau asked from the front seat of Addington's Suburban. Do you live on the moon? I thought. Addington explained the two-track process to her: As the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decides whether or not to relicense four PacifiCorp dams on the Klamath River, 26 disparate stakeholders, including tribes, farmers and fisherman, are trying to come to an agreement as to what they want to see happen in the watershed.
Two months later, when Nov. 1 rolled around, I wrote Addington an e-mail asking if the settlement talks had reached a turning point or not. He wrote back: "Still working very hard. Can't give you an exact timeline, safer to say by end of the year I think. Its just long, and hard work."
I thought nothing of it. After all, the talks are shrouded in secrecy and chronically off-schedule. But then, come mid-November I read that FERC staff had already issued their recommendation in the form of a final environmental impact statement (EIS): A Nov. 17 Los Angeles Times' headline read, "Feds recommend keeping Klamath dams." Hold on, I thought, what about the as-of-yet incomplete settlement talks?
According to Craig Tucker, Klamath campaign director for the Karuk Tribe, it's not as bad as it sounds. A lot of stories "buried the lead," he said, making the decision sound like a fait accompliat first glance. The real news is that FERC admitted that removing the four dams rather than fitting them with fish ladders is the cheaper option. FERC staffs' final EIS was a way of "ducking making the hard decision," Tucker said, "so they made a decision that doesn't comply with federal law, to push the decision onto the commissioners."
Federal law requires dams to adopt adequate fish passage when relicensed, but the FERC report recommends trapping and hauling fish around the dams rather than building expensive fish ladders to help spawning salmon.
"This is just a staff decision," FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller explained. "When it comes to licenses, mandatory conditions are required." In other words, if the FERC commissioners decide that the dams stay, PacifiCorp will have to install fish ladders.
So what comes next? More settlement talks, for one. But FERC isn't going to wait around for them to finish, according to Tucker. "The settlement group has to beat the FERC timeline," he said. Hopefully by the end of the year, the stakeholders will send their recommendations to FERC, whose commissioners will adopt or reject them.
However, Steve Pedery of OregonWild, a Portland-based environmental non-profit, thinks it's unlikely FERC will wholeheartedly adopt the settlement talk's recommendations. "This will be the first time ever that third parties apply to FERC with their idea of a settlement and try to convince the agency to force it on a utility," he said. "Pie in the sky would be an understatement."
OregonWild used to be one of the 28 stakeholders involved in the talks, but they claim they were "excluded" because they refused to compromise on "commercial agricultural development" on wildlife refuges in the Upper Basin.
Tucker admits that it won't be easy. "This would be the biggest peacetime dam removal in the history of the world," he said. Still, he's optimistic it'll happen. The FERC report stated that removing the four dams would be less expensive, to the tune of $7 million dollars a year, than keeping them in — a small victory for people with interests in Klamath River salmon.
Tucker is hopeful for other reasons too. It turns out that PacifCorp, which is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co. and controlled by billionaire Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., could potentially pass capital improvements, like building fish ladders, onto electricity ratepayers. But since FERC staff's final EIS states that removal is the cheaper option, PacifiCorp will be hard-pressed to convince Oregon utilities regulators that modifying the dams is the prudent thing to do. And if the utilities regulators don't buy it, then PacifiCorp will have to eat the cost.
That gives Tucker a feeling of vicarious pleasure: "I want to be a fly on the wall when someone at PacifiCorp has to call Warren Buffet up and say they made a $400 million mistake," he said.
Corrected from published edition.