ENDANGERED SPECIES:

Key enviro group retreats from Klamath settlement

An influential environmental group has backed away from a settlement that would remove four dams along the Klamath River to restore salmon and steelhead runs that have been partially blocked for most of the past century on the California-Oregon border.

Friends of the River said yesterday it would not sign the so-called Klamath Hydropower Settlement Agreement, claiming the pact includes so many loopholes that removal of the four dams appears unlikely.

Steve Evans, conservation director for the group, said environmentalists have tried for five years to work with the owner of the dams, Portland, Ore.-based PacifiCorp, to reach an accord that would balance salmon restoration with hydroelectric supply in southern Oregon and Northern California. But the resulting agreement, which was released last September to much fanfare, comes with too many strings attached for public financing, Evans said.

"Millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies and liberal liability protection for PacifiCorp is simply too much to pay for just the possibility that the dams will be removed," said Evans, noting that Congress would have to pass $1 billion legislation under the accord. "The settlement partners need to develop an agreement that fairly apportions costs and liability to all partners, including PacifiCorp, and that guarantees dam removal by 2020."

The agreement is scheduled for ratification by 29 affected parties this month following a last round of negotiations (Greenwire, Sept. 30, 2009). It's not clear how the rejection by Friends of the River, which is the largest environmental group to date to back out, will affect that process.

Another financial obstacle noted by Evans is a provision in the settlement that anticipates California voters would approve an $11 billion bond for water projects this November when they go to the polls. That bond measure includes $250 million in public funding to help PacifiCorp remove the dams.

Friends of the River, which is active in Sacramento, opposes that bond, "and thus cannot support a program whose funding depends upon the passage of the bond," explains a memorandum stating the group's position on the Klamath settlement.

Executives at PacifiCorp, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., have said they will go along with the settlement, and breach the dams, when officials from Oregon, California and the Interior Department make the pact official through a number of policy measures.

In total, dam removal is estimated to cost about $500 million. Oregon has guaranteed $180 million of that funding through new charges on state ratepayers.

Sullivan reported from San Francisco.

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