Report: Removing Klamath dams would help fish, provide jobs, cost millions

WASHINGTON — The ambitious proposal to remove four Klamath River dams would add jobs and aid fish, a new federal report asserts, but the idea still leaves California lawmakers badly divided.

As they approach a make-or-break decision on whether to recommend the dam removal, U.S. Interior Department officials on Tuesday touted anticipated benefits that include improved salmon habitat and 1,400 construction jobs during the year it would take to remove the hydroelectric dams.

Long-term Klamath Basin restoration efforts would add an estimated 4,600 jobs, the report says.

But the dam removals would also cost somewhere between $238 million and $493 million, potentially increase flooding risks and cut electricity production, the new Interior Department compilation shows. The new report pegs the most probable dam-removal cost at $291.6 million.

"The science and analyses presented in these reports are vital to making an informed and sound decision on the Klamath River dam removal," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

Nevada City, Calif., resident Steve Rothert, California director of the group American Rivers, added in an interview that the latest study is "by far the most rigorous and comprehensive" of the subject to date.

"This is really a path forward that will result in a better future for the Klamath River Basin," Rothert said.

Salazar must decide by March 31 whether to recommend the long-debated removal of the four dams near the Oregon border. Three of the dams are in California's northernmost Siskiyou County.

If Salazar decides the dams should go, the governors of Oregon and California will have 60 days to either concur or veto the plan. The governors appear sympathetic, while Congress seems ambivalent.

A House bill introduced last November by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, Calif., would authorize restoration of the Klamath Basin following dam removals and would guarantee farmers certain water deliveries. The restoration effort could require more than half-a-billion dollars from the federal government.

The chairman of the House water and power subcommittee, though, strongly opposes dam removal.

Last February, in a largely party line 215-to-210 vote, the House approved an amendment by the panel chairman, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, blocking federal spending on studies of Klamath River dam removals. Although the amendment was eventually dropped, its House approval underscored political difficulties ahead.

"To tear down four perfectly good hydroelectric dams at enormous cost is insane," McClintock said during a House debate.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer backs a bill in the Senate identical to the one introduced by Thompson in the House, while Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein hasn't yet committed herself. The Senate is where any bill is likely to move first.

The Klamath River dams owned by PacifiCorp have been under scrutiny for years, with the dam-removal debate accelerating since two landmark agreements were signed in 2010 by Oregon, California and tribal officials.

The draft 333-page report issued Tuesday identifies costs as well as benefits, a number of which were previously noted last year. Removing the dams, for instance, would release suspended sediment that in the short term could kill about 10 percent to 15 percent of the river's steelhead salmon, the report says.

Over the long haul, though, restoring habitat is "expected to increase the annual production of adult Chinook salmon by an average of 83 percent," the report notes.

Local Indian tribes would see benefits "that cannot be quantified," according to the latest study.

"It will make a substantial impact on the health of the river basin community," Rothert said.

On the other hand, removing the dams would eliminate the capacity to produce 163 megawatts of electricity annually.

The current proposal anticipates removing the dams in 2020.

PacifiCorp and the company's ratepayers would shoulder up to $200 million of the total removal cost, with most of the rest paid for by Oregon and California. The federal government would also spend hundreds of millions of dollars on restoring the 12,000-square mile Klamath Basin.

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