The Yurok Tribe has remained silent since announcing on Sept. 15 that it is withdrawing its support for the historic Klamath Agreements, a hard fought compromise reached five years ago aimed at removing the four dams that dot the Klamath River.
The tribe's exit from the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the companion Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement may prove a death knell to the deals, which have languished in a Congress that has so far failed to enact legislation needed to move the agreements forward. On the heels of the Yurok Tribe's announcement, both the Karuk Tribe and the Klamath Tribes of Oregon reportedly announced they'll likely pull out of the deal as well, if Congress fails to take action by the end of the year.
Even before the Yurok Tribe's announcement, many stakeholders' hopes were plummeting, as it seemed increasingly unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress would move on the legislation, which comes with an $800 million price tag. Some lawmakers worry the agreements will set a precedent for future dam removal projects. But the exact reasons the Yurok Tribe decided to pull out remains murky at best.
The tribe did not return numerous Journal calls seeking comment for this story and we've been unable to find any reporting elsewhere of Yurok officials explaining the move. The tribe's 652-word press release announcing the move is vague, saying only that "over time the bargained for benefits of the agreements have become unachievable" and that a recent deal reached between the Klamath Tribes of Oregon and other stakeholders to resolve water rights disputes provides benefits "that upset the bargained for benefits" of the original agreements. So what are these "bargained for benefits" that are now unachievable and how does the Klamath Tribes of Oregon deal impact the Yurok Tribe? It's unclear. And it's similarly unclear exactly what the tribe's withdrawal means and how it will or won't impact the process moving forward.
What is clear is that the Yurok Tribe is upset it wasn't included in the negotiations that resulted in the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement in April of 2014 and is apparently displeased with the result. In its press release, the Yurok Tribe says that, despite requests, it was not invited to participate in the Upper Klamath settlement talks. Those talks ultimately resulted in a landmark agreement between state and federal agencies, the tribes and Upper Klamath irrigators that, when signed, was heralded as an historic win-win agreement that was good for the environment, irrigators and the tribes.
Essentially, the complicated deal saw the upper Klamath tribes cede some of their senior water rights to allow irrigators to water 18,000 acres of farm land in exchange for increased flows into Upper Klamath Lake. The tribes will also get $45 million in federal economic development funds and federal help acquiring the Mazama Forest, a long-sought after 90,000-acre piece of land that used to be part of the tribes' reservation. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, praised the agreement as the last piece that needed to be put in place before Congress could act on the Klamath Agreements. "Now it is time for Congress to get to work and build on what has already been done," he said at the time.
What the Yurok Tribe hoped to get out of these negotiations is unclear, as is why the tribe feels the agreement broke the "delicate balance of bargained for benefits" achieved by the initial agreements. In its press release, the Yurok Tribe said only that it has worked for the last year and a half to restore the balance, including through negotiations with the U.S. Department of the Interior, but to no avail. The tribe does not specify what it was looking to gain through the negotiations or why it's just now come to the conclusion that balance is unattainable.
On Jan. 8, Wyden introduced the Klamath Basin Water Recovery and Economic Restoration Act of 2015, the much anticipated legislation that would pave the way for the Klamath Agreements. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where it languishes to this day with no action to speak of.
The path forward from here is murky at best. The Klamath Agreements were binding, so the Yurok Tribe's announcement seems more symbolic than anything. But that doesn't mean it won't have a powerful impact. The legislation was already deemed controversial and now lawmakers have to worry about the Yurok Tribe — a principal party and driving force behind the original agreements — showing up to protest at a committee hearing. The tribe's press release also notes that it is moving forward with referring its dispute to the Klamath Basin Coordinating Council, a body the agreements task with mediating any stakeholder disputes that should arise, so it's possible this is simply another tactic being deployed in what's now been a 10-year negotiation.
It's also entirely possible that the Yurok Tribe no longer thinks the agreements are the most viable and expedient path toward dam removal and, instead, is eyeing a possible partnership with the Hoopa Tribe. Never a party to the agreements, the Hoopa Tribe has been working through the courts and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to try to get PacifiCorp to remove its Klamath dams. The tribe is arguing that the federal commission is violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing the Warren Buffett-owned PacifiCorp to continue operating the dams with licenses that expired in 2006.
In pushing the commission to move forward with relicensing, the Hoopa Tribe is hoping that forcing the company to comply with clean water laws will lead to a mandate to install fish ladders on all four dams, which would likely prove more expensive in the long run than simply removing the dams altogether. Regulating the dams under today's standards — as opposed to their recently expired 1956 licenses that predate many environmental laws — may lead to their removal.
But believers in the Klamath Agreements point out that the commission — known as FERC — hasn't historically leapt to dam removal as a favorable option in other cases, noting that the only dams removed through FERC processes have been the result of private settlements.
Meanwhile, local environmental groups that have long called for Klamath River dam removal sit and wait. During the All Species Parade at Arcata's North County Fair on Sept. 20, a school of puppet salmon circled H Street before bursting through a paper banner dam held by paraders, drawing cheers from those looking on. Northcoast Environmental Center Executive Director Dan Ehresman said the bit of live theater wasn't intended as a statement on the Yurok Tribe's announcement. In reality, Ehresman said, the NEC just wants to see the dams gone, no matter how it happens.
"We just want to continue to call attention to the fact that there are four dams on the Klamath that are not providing any meaningful benefit to anyone, yet they are causing significant harm and blocking fish passage and cutting off watersheds," he said. "We need to continue calling attention to that issue."
In a statement released after the Yurok Tribe's announcement, North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman said he still believes the Klamath Agreements are the best path toward dam removal. But, the congressman said he — like the Yurok Tribe — has grown frustrated as, year after year, Congress has failed to act as massive annual fish kills on the Klamath have been narrowly avoided. Congress needs to act, Huffman said, and "the Yurok announcement demonstrates that time is not on our side."
News that the Klamath tribes and the Karuk Tribe may also bail on the agreements if Congress hasn't acted by the end of the year only seems to underscore Huffman's point. But there could be another wildcard at play, as the Yurok Tribe has elections looming in October, with Chair Thomas O'Rourke Sr. and Vice-Chair Susan Masten facing challengers.
Could a change in leadership shift the tribe's approach to the Klamath Agreements? Like so much else in this latest chapter of the Klamath saga, it remains unclear.