Unapproved by Congress by the end of the 2015, the three Klamath Basin agreements are dead in the water.
While only one of the three agreements — the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement or KBRA — expired on Dec. 31, the new year signaled several tribal governments to withdraw from the agreements. Rather than putting faith in Congress, the tribes are focusing on removing four hydroelectric dams in the Klamath Basin through other methods.
“The water quality is such a pronounced issue that it needs to be dealt with,” Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries Director Mike Orcutt said. “We need action now.”
Second District California Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) said the agreements have been in a “slow motion crash” for several months, prompting him to begin looking at other methods outside of Congress to push the key elements of the agreements through.
“I will be pushing the Obama administration to do everything it can with its existing legal authority,” Huffman said. “I will be pushing California to assert its water rights and water quality authority on the river in our state’s interests. And I’ll be pushing all of the parties to continue to try to work on difficult members of Congress who have stood in the way of progress.”
Drafted between 2010 and 2014 following decades of water rights disputes on the basin between tribes and irrigators on the California-Oregon border, the three agreements encompassed in Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act of 2015 would have led the way to removing four hydroelectric dams, given water assurances to basin irrigators with junior water rights, and provided environmental protections to fish and basin tributaries. The bill contained all three agreements — the KBRA, the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), and the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement — which had been signed on by a coalition of about 45 government agencies, tribal governments, farmers, irrigators and environmental organizations. These signatories included the Yurok and Karuk tribes as well as the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. The bill sat in the House Natural Resources Committee until its death on New Year’s Day.
Incoming Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Lovelace said that the agreements showed how political idealogies could be set aside to solve common issues, but stated House Republicans on the committee “were not able to get past their preexisting narrative, their political talking points that it’s jobs versus environment. Which is false.”
“The KBRA did not fail. The coalition did not fail,” Lovelace said. “Congress failed.”
No Dams, No Deal
Supporters of the agreements said what caused the halt in the bill’s movement through Congress were the provisions of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement.
“I think the blame lies squarely with those whose dogma on the issue of dam removal led them to either sit on their hands for several years or actively oppose congressional action,” Huffman said.
The KHSA would have had the Portland-based energy company PacifiCorp remove four of its hydroelectric dams — Iron Gate, Copco 1 & 2, and J.C. Boyle — on the river by 2020. With this proposed project being the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, Congress would limit PacifiCorp’s liability to $200 million should something go amiss as part of the agreement.
Dam removal was key for maintaining the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath Tribes of Oregon’s support for the agreements, and was also supported by PacifiCorp which had signed on to the agreement. But others including House Republicans such as Congressman Greg Walden (R-Oregon) and 1st District California Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) were outspoken in their opposition to dam removal and its potential impacts on water supplies for agriculture. Walden introduced a draft bill earlier this month that included several provisions of the original agreements, but did not include the dam-removal agreements.
“That process is left up to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” Walden wrote in a Dec. 3 news release. “(The draft bill) also does not create federal liability from dam removal.”
There were several other parties outside of Congress that did not support the agreements, including the Hoopa Valley Tribe. While the tribe fully supports dam removal, Orcutt said the other water sharing agreements would decrease flows on the lower Klamath River basin to those below what is needed to protect endangered coho salmon while limiting tribal water rights.
The Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement has not expired, but the tribes are now taking the issue of dam removal into their own hands rather than waiting on Congress.
“What hope is there?” Orcutt asked. “Go back and keep knocking on the same door? The reality of it is that the river needs some type of relief. I think something we need to look at is the water quality.”
Huffman does not blame the tribes for looking to other methods, and said he does not expect this Congress to change its mind any time soon.
“I don’t know why anybody would continue to place their faith in a framework that depends on congressional action when you have demonstrated hostility from congressional Republicans to the central element of the deal,” he said.
PacifiCorp had been in the process of relicensing the four dams through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the first time since 1956 before delaying the process due to the signing of the KHSA in 2010. With the Klamath Basin bill’s expiration, PacifiCorp will resume the relicensing process, which is nearly completed. However, the dams must still obtain state Clean Water Act permits from California and Oregon and that is where the tribes see a chance to bring the dams down.
“This is not an end,” Karuk Tribe Natural Resources Policy Advocate Craig Tucker said. “It’s a new beginning.” The California Water Resources Control Board would ultimately decide whether the company will get a Clean Water Act permit, and is set to hold a series of scoping meetings in California and Oregon in January — including one in Arcata on Jan. 25 — to seek comments as it prepares its Environmental Impact Report on the dam relicensing. During these meetings, the tribes are seeking to show that only through dam removal can the state mitigate low flowing conditions that have led to toxic blue-green algae blooms and warm water temperatures that have negatively impacted salmon.
But Tucker said this new path likely result in litigation no matter what. Should the state grant the permit to PacifiCorp even with environmental protection measures, Tucker said the tribes would likely sue because the dams would not be removed. If the state denied the permit, Tucker said PacifiCorp could sue and could lead to legal challenges between state and federal water and energy laws.
“That’s why we think the negotiated settlement is the best way to dam removal,” he said.
But while the process could take several years, Orcutt said, “We don’t have any other option.”
“The reality of it is that the river needs some type of relief,” he said.
Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.
This article was previously published by Times Standard News: http://www.times-standard.com/general-news/20160101/klamath-basin-agreements-die-in-congress