AROUND OREGON: Federal decision advances removal of Klamath dam

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A federal decision on Thursday transferred operating licenses for four hydroelectric dams to the states of Oregon and California and to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. It is a step towards removing the dams and restoring the passage of salmon in the upper reaches of the Klamath River.

The John C. Boyle Dam on the headwaters of the Klamath River with the gates open (Bob Galindo / Wikimedia Commons)

Efforts to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River removed another regulatory hurdle Thursday after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allowed the original owner of the dams to withdraw their license to operate the facilities.

Specifically, FERC has accepted a joint application to transfer the license for the dams from PacifiCorp to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation and the states of Oregon and California.

After the successful handover of the license (which is its own separate process from FERC), KRRC, a non-profit organization, will ask contractors to remove the dams and restore the river to the reservoir footprints.

“Today’s order paves the way for surrender of the permit and decommissioning of the lower project,” FERC President Richard Glick said at the agency’s June meeting on Thursday morning.

The Klamath Dam removal effort encountered a roadblock last July, when FERC partially denied and partially accepted the license transfer request. Their ruling required PacifiCorp to remain on the dam’s license during the withdrawal, which the utility said violated a core tenet of the Klamath hydropower settlement agreement.

The KHSA, signed by Oregon, California, PacifiCorp, tribes and environmental groups, aims to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River: JC Boyle in Oregon and Copco I, Copco II and Iron Gate Dams in California. The dams were built before modern environmental regulations and therefore lack adequate fish passage, essentially cutting Klamath Basin in half for migrating salmon. They have also been linked to poor water quality and serious fish disease outbreaks on the river.

These structures do not store water for agriculture, nor do they act as flood control infrastructure. The Keno and Link River dams further upstream, which have a fish passage, fulfill these roles and are not intended to be removed. Although the four hydroelectric dams are sometimes referred to as the “Klamath Project,” they are not part of the Klamath Irrigation Project managed by the Bureau of Reclamation.

The deal would have stripped PacifiCorp of dam licenses before removing reservoirs and decommissioning dams, ensuring that the utility would not be responsible (financially or otherwise) for any potential issues encountered during removal.

Arguing that PacifiCorp could provide valuable expertise to the project and that they should not be able to vacate the hydropower facilities after decades of ownership, FERC decided that the utility should remain during the withdrawal process.

While some saw this as an accusation of KRRC’s ability to carry out the project on its own, the commission’s order last July indicated that the nonprofit was, in general, sufficiently equipped to handle the project. handle the move – but that PacifiCorp could provide valuable expertise as who built and operated the dams for decades.

“The commission was concerned that the planned decommissioning of the project would require additional legal, technical and financial support that PacifiCorp as a co-licensee could provide,” Glick said of the July 2020 order.

This sent the KHSA signatories to the table for four months, after which they announced that the removal of the dam would move forward again with an additional pledge from PacifiCorp, Oregon and California. The resubmitted license transfer request also proposed adding states to the license, as well as KRRC, to meet FERC’s demand for more support for the nonprofit organization.

“Today’s order concludes that the addition of states sufficiently addresses the concerns of the Commission outlined in last year’s order, and there is no longer a need to require PacifiCorp to remain as co-licensee, ”said Glick.

In a statement, FERC affirmed KRRC’s ability to complete the project, but added that states will provide the agency’s desired support for the project.

“Today’s order confirms that the Renewal Corporation has the capacity, financially and otherwise, to undertake the removal of the dam, and with the States, as co-licensees, the necessary legal and technical expertise. for such a huge company, ”the statement said.

The $ 45 million pledged by states and the utility would serve as an emergency fund if the project exceeded its budget by $ 450 million, the money of which has already been raised through a PacifiCorp surtax and a California bond for the water. The November memorandum of understanding also committed the three parties to equally share any costs over $ 45 million.

By explicitly affirming PacifiCorp’s commitment to the phase-out project – and bringing both states on the license – the KHSA signatories hoped the new agreement would meet FERC’s demand for increased support for the KRRC. Thursday’s FERC order suggests commissioners agree.

“In the most recent case, the parties convinced us that other states bring a lot to the table, and we no longer necessarily need to demand that PacifiCorp be part of the consortium that will move forward,” said Glick said in a press release. conference after Thursday’s meeting.

The order said that FERC appreciated pledges of additional funding from PacifiCorp and the two states, although they agreed that the existing budget (which contains its own contingency fund of about $ 50 million) is sufficient to complete. the project.

“We continue to conclude, based on the Commission’s screening, that the $ 450 million provided for in the amended settlement agreement should be sufficient,” the Commissioners wrote. “However, the commitment of states and PacifiCorp to provide a contingency fund and to cover any cost overruns provides a guarantee of additional funding.”

From now on, FERC will undertake the environmental review of the project’s permit surrender request, which would allow it to move forward with the decommissioning and removal of the dams. This will involve a multi-month National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process and public comment before the panel makes a decision on whether to allow KRRC to release the license.

“We also need FERC approval for our divestiture request, but today’s decision by the Commissioners certainly reinforces our optimism about the way forward,” said Mark Bransom, CEO of KRRC.

The KHSA parties have requested additional time to agree to the transfer terms and initiate the license transfer from PacifiCorp to KRRC and the States, in the order of 30 days after future approval of the transfer request. FERC has granted this, meaning that PacifiCorp will still be the sole licensee of the dams (and therefore responsible for all operating costs) throughout the environmental review process of the divestiture application.

Even after KRRC, Oregon and California assume the license for the dams, the FERC order said PacifiCorp will still operate them “until power operations cease and the project plants are physically disconnected from the network “.

Current KRRC projections estimate that the drawdown of the reservoir and the removal of the dams will begin in 2023. Contracts have already been signed with construction and environmental restoration companies to carry out the project.

“The future of this project has been on the line for some time now, and it is important that we provide licensees and other stakeholders in the region with a sense of certainty as to whether plans to abandon the license and removing the four roadblocks can continue, ”Glick said.

KRRC praised the FERC decision, which ended nearly a year of uncertainty over the project’s progress.

“This is a crucial and significant step forward in fulfilling KRRC’s core mission of removing the four lower dams at Klamath and restoring a free-flowing river,” said Jim Root, chairman of the Klamath River. KRRC board of directors. “I am deeply grateful to all parties who have supported this project over the years, and I especially want to recognize the important and sustained efforts of our tribal partners.”

Tribal communities in the basin also welcomed the move, as the removal project aims to improve the salmon ranges on which the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa and Klamath tribes have depended as cultural resources since time immemorial.

Regina Chichizola, co-director of Save California Salmon, was grateful for the FERC decision – especially in the wake of the California Fish and Game Commission vote to classify Klamath-Trinity Spring Chinook salmon as endangered under of the California Endangered Species Act. The listing was made based on genetic differences found between fall and spring chinook salmon, as well as traditional tribal ecological knowledge regarding the two populations.

“These two victories are the result of decades of tribal and community action for the Klamath River, and they come at a time when we need hope,” said Chichizola. “The devastating death of juvenile fish we know of on the Klamath River is directly linked to the Klamath Dams, as are the dismal salmon returns over the past two decades.”

Frankie Myers, Vice President of the Yurok Tribe, said that with generations of tribal members, the governors of Oregon and California are to be commended for their “pivotal role” in approving the FERC transfer. .

“The transfer of the four dams represents a major milestone in the multigenerational effort to heal the Klamath River,” Myers said. “This action brings us very close to the day when we can begin to remove the dams and restore the river for future generations. The removal of the dam must take place before it is too late for the endangered Klamath salmon.

This story has been published with permission as part of the AP Storyshare system. Salem Reporter is a contributor to this Oregon media network.

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