Dam removal benefits fish, farmers

An agreement to remove four hydroelectric dams on the lower Klamath River offers the best option for restoring fish runs in the river and returning some stability to irrigators in the Klamath Basin, who have seen their water supplies cut off in recent years to protect fish. Senate Bill 76, which passed the Oregon Senate last week, should be approved in the House as well to move the project forward.

PacifiCorp, which owns the dams, reached an agreement in principle in November with the federal government and the states of Oregon and California. The agreement calls for PacifiCorp to remove the Iron Gate, J.C. Boyle and Copco 1 and 2 dams from the Klamath River.

The dams are due for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an expensive and time-consuming process that would require PacifiCorp to make substantial improvements for fish passage.

The Senate bill that passed last Tuesday allows PacifiCorp to add a surcharge to the power bills of the company's Oregon customers to cover up to $180 million of the $450 million cost of removing the dams. The company says Oregon residential power customers would see an increase of about $1.50 a month. California power customers would pay $20 million and the state of California would ask its voters to approve $250 million in bonds.

Opposition to the bill came from Republicans in the Senate, with the notable exception of Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point. Opponents said they were concerned that ratepayers might get stuck with larger bills if the cost of removing the dams turned out to be higher than expected.

But there is plenty of protection built into the bill and the agreement. A final agreement is to be reached by 2012, and if studies conducted in the meantime show the cost to be substantially higher, the state can opt out of the agreement.

Opponents suggest that removing contaminated sediment from behind the dams will be enormously expensive, and would pose an environmental risk if flushed downstream. But studies of the sediment found low levels of contaminants and concluded that only a portion would flow downstream and would not pose a significant threat to fish.

The project has the support of farmers, fishing groups, Indian tribes and environmental groups, including American Rivers and Sustainable Northwest. The cost to power customers is small, and the benefits are huge.

The bill now making its way through the Legislature is only one step in the process. Many more will be needed before the dams are actually taken out.

But each step is important to keep the dam-removal process moving forward. Lawmakers should do their part by approving SB 76.

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