Historic deal refreshes plans for major dam removal

By Jeremy P. Jacobs | 11/18/2020 01:32 PM EST

America’s largest dam removal project has been brought back to life with a new agreement among California, Oregon, tribes and a utility owned by billionaire Warren Buffett.

PacifiCorp's Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River in Northern California.

PacifiCorp's Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River in Northern California. Jeremy P. Jacobs/E&E News

America’s largest dam removal project has been brought back to life with a new agreement among California, Oregon, tribes and a utility owned by billionaire Warren Buffett.

The decadeslong effort to remove four dams on the Klamath River in Northern California that have had a devastating impact on salmon runs had appeared in danger following an unexpected July regulatory order. But in an emotional and triumphant online press conference yesterday, major stakeholders praised a new agreement that could mean the dams start coming down in 2023.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said the announcement is a bright spot in what’s been a difficult year. He marveled that in an era "filled with so much cynicism, so much anxiety, so much negativity, that we are on the precipice of the largest river restoration project in the history of this country."


At issue are four dams in California and Oregon that are the farthest downstream on the Klamath River in a rugged part of the Pacific Northwest.

Kalmath river map. Credit: Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News
The Klamath River begins in the high desert of southern Oregon before snaking south and west 253 miles to the Pacific Ocean. It is considered an “upside-down” river because its water is cleaner and runs faster at its mouth than at its headwaters.

Management of the dams, along with an irrigation project in southern Oregon, has sparked hostilities among farmers, local tribes and regulators.

In 2001, protests nearly turned violent when federal managers cut off irrigation supplies to send more water downstream for the endangered fish. The protests worked; George W. Bush’s administration reversed course the following year, even though drought conditions remain. It led to massive fish deaths. By some accounts up to 70,000 fish washed up on the Klamath’s shores.

The decline of the salmon runs has threatened the tribes’ way of life both practically — they are subsistence fishermen — and traditionally — they view the river’s salmon as sacred.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) referenced how the new agreement will help the tribes yesterday.

"We are taking an incredibly important step forward on the path toward restorative justice for the people of the Klamath basin and toward restoring the health of the river," she said, "as well as everyone and everything that depends on it."

The Klamath dams are relatively small and barely produce any hydropower anymore. Following years of pressure from tribes, including the Karuk and Yurok, PacifiCorp, the Portland, Ore.-based utility that owns the dams, agreed in 2010 to decommission them and tear them down.

But that agreement contained several requirements. The first was ratification by Congress, which never happened (Greenwire, March 13, 2017).

Still, the stakeholders persisted, and it appeared that the decommissioning and removal was still on track. That included the formation of the Klamath River Renewal Corp., a nonprofit that would take ownership of the dams from PacifiCorp and handle the decommissioning and removal.

But the process hit a hurdle in July when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has jurisdiction over the dams because they produce hydropower, said PacifiCorp must remain a co-owner of the dams.

That meant that PacifiCorp and its customers could be on the hook for any unexpected liabilities or costs of the dam removal. That was a key term of the utility, and after the order, PacifiCorp appeared to back away from the project (Greenwire, July 17).

Yesterday’s agreement, however, maintains those liability protections for PacifiCorp, and a representative of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Greg Abel, said he and Buffett are grateful they were able to meet "an important milestone, and such an incredible agreement."

And Abel said PacifiCorp has a "commitment to seeing the agreement fully implemented, including through to the removal of the dams."

The deal advances all planning and permitting to complete the project, including a new filing to FERC that details those plans and how the Klamath River Renewal Corp. will carry them out.

In January, the nonprofit will file a second application to FERC to add California and Oregon as "co-licensees" of the dams, in what appears to be another move to shield PacifiCorp from liability.

PacifiCorp has pledged $200 million for the removal project. Another $250 million is slated to come from a 2014 California water bond.

"God’s delays are not God’s denials," Newsom said in the announcement. "We are finally one step closer at this remarkable moment."

Rep. Jared Huffman (D), who represents the area in Northern California, praised the agreement, saying any further delay would have not only harmed the salmon and tribes, but also Buffett’s reputation.

"It appears that message was received, and Warren Buffett has done the right thing to work with the Yurok and Karuk tribes and the states to get it done," he said in a statement. "The states’ efforts and willingness to take this on have been nothing short of remarkable."

Tribal leaders became emotional seeing what appeared to be the finish line after decades of work.

"It’s a new day and a new era for California tribes," said Yurok Chairman Joseph James, adding that his people are "connected with our heart and prayers" to the river.

"Our way of life will thrive with these dams out," he said.

Buster Attebery of the Karuk Tribe said his worst day as chairman was having to tell his elders and children that there were no fish available for their traditional gatherings.

"I’m looking very much forward to having the best day as chairman of the Karuk Tribe," he said, when he can tell the tribe, "We have restored these fish."