Jan 16, 2008

Klamath Basin Water Deal Proposed

Dam removals not included in agreement

After more than two years of negotiation, a $400 million, 10-year restoration agreement for California's Klamath River Basin has been reached, the Environment News Service (ENS) reported. The agreement could put an end to the struggle over water and power management in the area that has lasted at least a decade.

The Klamath Settlement Group released the details of the proposed Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement Jan. 15, ENS reported. The group is made up of representatives from diverse Klamath Basin communities and officers from local governments.

The agreement includes a program to rebuild fish populations healthy enough for sustainable fisheries and reliable water allocation to sustain the needs of the agricultural community and national wildlife refuges located in the basin.

Although parties to the agreement say the deal could pave the way for a second agreement to remove four dams blocking salmon from their spawning grounds, billionaire Warren Buffett's PacifiCorp electric utility, the dams' owner, has not signed on, according to ENS.

The agreement includes a program to stabilize power costs in the area and a compensation program for counties that may be impacted if the dams are removed in the future, ENS reported.

"The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement marks a major stride forward in bringing peace to the Klamath River," said Brian Stranko, chief executive of the fishing and water quality advocacy group California Trout, one of the groups that participated in the proposed agreement.

"This is, however, only half of the pie. We also need success in negotiations with PacifiCorp to remove four mainstem dams before this Basin Restoration Agreement can be signed and implemented," Stranko said. "The two separate agreements make a non-severable package."

The Klamath River originates in Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon, flows 240 miles from Oregon into northern California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean near Klamath, Calif. The river drains an area of approximately 13,000 square miles.

The Klamath Settlement Group was formed in 2004 after PacifiCorp applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for relicensing of five mainstem dams it currently runs on the river, according to ENS. Under the relicensing process, parties can submit a preferred negotiated outcome to FERC. Negotiations with PacifiCorp on an agreement are still in progess.

Currently, the lower three dams block passage for salmon, steelhead and lamprey to over 300 miles of spawning and rearing habitat.

"Removing these dams makes sense," Steve Rothert of American Rivers said Jan. 15. "By releasing the proposed Basin Restoration Agreement today, we're saying that there is a better way, and that ongoing environmental degradation is no longer an option. It's time to bring disparate groups together and work out realistic solutions that will pave the way for a better, more responsible future."

Intense wrangling over water resources has increased over the past decade as water in the Klamath River Basin has disappeared, the news service reported.

In the dry year of 2001, the federal government cut back water to farmers and held it for endangered fish, sparking a heated confrontation that saw farmers resort to forcing open locked water gates. Farmers got more water for irrigation the next year, but environmentalists said at least 70,000 salmon died without enough water.

By 2006, the level of chinook salmon in the river was so low that federal officials slashed the commercial fishing season, causing hardship for fishermen and restaurants.

"The Klamath River was once the third greatest Pacific salmon producing stream in the lower 48 states," said Brian Barr of the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy. "Decades of degrading habitat and blocking fish from 300 miles of stream have caused wild salmon populations to drop by 90%. We need to build a robust future for the Klamath River and the communities that depend on it."