Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Busting the Dams



The United States of America is a nation perpetually at war with itself, barely ever able to reach anything like a consensus opinion on anything at all. One possible exception: outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney. In June, the national Harris Poll had his popularity ratings at a grim 18 percent -- as close to a universal thumbs-down as any national political figure is ever likely to get.

So it's fitting that as the nation waves him good riddance, Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman has published his book-length study: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. The book grew out of a long series on Cheney published in the Post last year. One of the most eye-opening episodes of that series, presumably expanded upon in the book, is the startlingly direct role Cheney played in determining the fate of the Klamath River. In 2002, Cheney trampled on the work of federal scientists and arranged a series of events that ended with somewhere around 70,000 adult salmon dead on the banks of the river. This was the famous Klamath Fish Kill, though not the only one before or since.

For locals, the book is the least part of justice. Far more important is the deal reached last week with PacifiCorp, an energy company, concerning the removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath. The deal -- technically an "agreement in principle," since further work must be done before things move ahead -- may lead to the largest dam removal project in history, restoring hundreds of miles of habitat to salmon and cleaning up the river's water in the meanwhile. Ground could be broken on the project in 2020 -- a long way off in human terms, but a blink of an eye in river time.

The agreement in principle, which was co-signed by the federal government and the states of Oregon and California, is the last piece of a puzzle that would bring a permanent settlement of water claims on the Klamath River, traditionally divided between agricultural interests in the upstream Klamath basin and everyone else -- Native American tribes, commercial salmon fishermen, environmental groups. In January of this year, many of these groups came forward with a consensus plan to manage the river's resources. The agreement was contingent upon a concrete deal with PacifiCorp to remove the hydroelectric dams. PacifiCorp had stalled talks, but now the company has finally come through. Now both deals can go to Congress for approval. (It's worth noting that the company is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, an Obama confidant.)

The current course of events on the Klamath isn't without its dissenters. Greg King, former director of the Northcoast Environmental Center, criticized the draft settlement agreement released in January, saying it gave up too much to the farmers. Writing in the Times-Standard Saturday, he made clear that he was no fonder of the PacifiCorp "agreement in principle." King wrote that PacifiCorp was awarded too many "legal off-ramps" in the agreement. Most importantly, PacifiCorps will for the time being be given a pass on a state review of the pollution generated by the dams. The review would have likely showed PacifiCorp to be a major polluter, King wrote, and that would have led to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denying the company a renewal of its license to operate. This would have brought the dams down, King believes; now there are only airy promises and plenty of ways for PacifiCorp to wriggle out of the deal. Also, government will now be making monetary concessions to the company.

Perhaps. But it's hard to see how an all-out fight with the company is more likely to produce favorable results. A showdown at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in fact, would probably end in disaster. Klamath issues have been before that body many times in the past, and it has never shown itself amenable to forcing dam removal. The current framework eases the company along that path, and it's not all carrot -- the state of California, in particular, keeps control of several sticks. It's worth moving forward.

In the meanwhile, check out the December issue of National Geographic, just hitting the stands. Writer Russ Rymer and photographer David McClain offer a moving portrait of the entire basin, from the farmers upstream to Yurok fishermen at the mouth. Rymer and McClain beautifully capture a still-frail sensibility that has been building on the banks of the Klamath for the last few years, against all odds: One river, one people. Don't check your brains at the door, but it's a sensibility that absolutely has to be nurtured.

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