The New River War

NEC stakes out tough anti-settlement position on the Klamath River



For a long time, the fight over the sickly Klamath River -- once home to one of the state's most magnificent salmon fisheries -- has been between farmers and fishermen, dam owners and Native American tribes.

Nowadays, though, most of those old antagonists have come together to agree upon a plan to restore the river and divide its assets more equitably. Years of discussions among people who live on and use the river have produced an agreement that most believe will vastly improve conditions for salmon and other fish species, while at the same time providing greater security for upstream agricultural interests.

But not everyone believes that the settlement agreement -- which would result, among other things, in the removal of four river-killing hydroelectric dams -- is the best way forward. The lines on the Klamath are now drawn between those who will work to support the settlement and those who will work to oppose it, and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors got some of the first public tastes of that division at a public hearing Tuesday morning.

After over an hour of testimony, the biggest news of the day was that the Northcoast Environmental Center -- an early pioneer in the fight to save the Klamath -- remained solidly opposed to the settlement. The NEC's stance on the settlement has been somewhat in flux in recent months, following staff changes at the organization and the departure of former executive director Greg King, but Tuesday's hearing erased any uncertainty as to whether its essential position had changed.

"We urge the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors not to become pre-decisional on the Klamath Settlement agreements," said NEC Klamath Coordinator Jay Wright, capping off an address that sought to inject a note of dissent into the proceedings.

Tuesday's public hearing kicked off a two-month season of discussion on the merits of the two documents that comprise the settlement: the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. The former deals with water distribution and habitat restoration; the latter pertains specifically to removal of the four PacificCorps hydropower dams on the middle stretch of the river. They are written in such a way that they must be signed in tandem. Klamath stakeholders, including Humboldt County government, have given themselves a deadline of Jan. 14 to officially sign letters of support before legislation proposed agreement goes to Sacramento and Washington. (See "The Klamath Settlement," the Journal's Oct. 8 cover story, for a more thorough discussion of the settlement's details.)

Wright said that the NEC was working with other groups opposed to the settlement to develop an "alternative dam removal framework" to bring to legislators. That framework, he said, would result in dam removal beginning in 2013. Under the settlement, removal would not begin in 2020. In addition to the speedier timeline, Wright laid out three other conditions for a dam removal program that his organization could support. Dam removal, he said, must be delinked from the larger Klamath restoration agreement, delinked from other state water projects and accompanied by strict interim measures to restore fish habitat.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe also expressed its displeasure with the settlement. Mike Orcutt, the tribe's fisheries director, stated that the tribe was deeply concerned with provisions that would require it to waive its ability to sue for water rights or damages incurred by the agreement. In addition, Orcutt and other tribal officials reiterated their position that the agreement should take in to account the Klamath's largest tributary -- the Trinity River, which runs through the Hoopa Valley reservation.

Apart from those exceptions, everyone who spoke at the public hearing was wholeheartedly in favor of the settlement, and some took time to scoff at the idea that a better result could be achieved outside the framework agreed by the parties to the discussion. They noted the multitudinous interests along the river, and emphasized the tricky work of balancing those interests to arrive at a settlement that has enough political support to have a chance.

Paul Simmons, an attorney representing the Klamath Water Users Association -- an umbrella organization of upstream agricultural interests -- seemed to emphasize that point a few moments after Wright spoke. Without the guarantees established in the broader settlement agreement, he said, there would be no way that his constituency would stand up in favor of dam removal.

"I think I should say that our organization is pretty fond of dams, to be frank," he said, referring to the hydropower settlement in particular. "We like them a lot. Yet this agreement -- the KHSA -- is important. It's important to us, because it's important to our partners. We say to [our members], 'We've got your back over in the KBRA.'"

John Corbett, attorney for the Yurok Tribe, said that his legal analysis led him to believe that there would be little chance of achieving dam removal without the support of PacifiCorp, the energy company that owns and operates the hydropower dams on the river -- and that the battle would be lengthy and costly, in any case. PacifiCorp has signaled its support of the settlement, as it offers remediation measures for its customers.

Wright told the Journal that the NEC's official position on the settlement and its proposed alternative will be spelled out more completely in an issue of Econews, the organization's newspaper, which is scheduled to be released later this month.

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