PD Editorial: Klamath dam deal is in peril, but hope remains

Four dams on the Klamath River along the California-Oregon border were going to be removed. All sides had agreed to the deal — the dams’ owners, Indigenous tribes, farmers, communities, everybody with a stake. Leave it to federal regulators to muck everything up. Now the deal is in jeopardy, and all sides should return to the negotiating table to salvage it.

In 2016, all sides signed onto a plan to remove the dams. Competing interests gave way to compromise.

PacifiCorp, the power company that owns the dams, would transfer them to a nonprofit that would oversee their removal. The company would contribute $200 million toward removal costs, and the remaining $250 million would come from California by way of a 2014 water bond. PacifiCorp would avoid some liability and unforeseen costs. It also would be done with a headache that’s gone on for years.

Tribes, environmentalists and the fishing industry would receive long-sought cultural, natural and economic boosts. Once the Klamath was restored to its natural flow, it would provide precious habitat for salmon.

Farmers and ranchers likely would see more water than they have in many years. They also were promised economic support.

If it wasn’t a win-win-win, it was at least a deal everyone could live with until the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission upended it last month. FERC concluded that the nonprofit that was going to take ownership of the dams didn’t have the experience or expertise to oversee such a complicated project. PacifiCorp therefore needed to stay on as co-licensee.

But if PacifiCorp couldn’t walk away clean, it lost a huge incentive for removing the dams at all. It might just as well stick with the status quo. Thanks, FERC.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and tribal leaders have asked PacifiCorp to press ahead anyway. More precisely, they asked Warren Buffett and his Berkshire Hathaway group, which owns PacificCorp, to just roll with the decision.

That would be great, of course, but if Buffett and PacifiCorp say no, don’t be surprised or offended. After all, they negotiated in good faith. They agreed to a deal in which they got something and gave up something. Now they aren’t getting what they were promised. The fairest thing to do would be return to the negotiating table and revise the deal to FERC’s liking.

Newsom went so far as to suggest that if PacificCorp does not capitulate, it would offend the ongoing racial justice movement and values of “equity, inclusion and accountability.” It is a strange thing, indeed, that the governor views expecting all sides to abide by a carefully negotiated compromise as unjust. It is a disappointing thing that he would co-opt social justice to do it.

Leaders of the Karuk and Yurok tribes wrote in Portland’s Oregonian newspaper, “Delay associated with negotiations is concerning to the dozens of stakeholders that signed onto the agreement. Slowing down the process by only a month or two would almost certainly delay dam removal by another year or more, which would drive up costs while pushing salmon populations closer to extinction.”

That might be, but that’s not the fault of PacificCorp, its ratepayers or Warren Buffet. FERC is to blame for any delay.

If there’s no time to waste, get back to the negotiating table as soon as possible.

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