Dammed if you do ...

Why is PacifiCorp bending the truth about settlement talks?


Klamath River. Photo by Hank Sims.
  • Klamath River. Photo by Hank Sims.

Early last week, stakeholders in the Klamath settlement talks went public with a water deal that was immediately hailed as "historic" and a "breakthrough" in the press. That deal, the product of three years of closed-door meetings between myriad interests including environmental groups, farmers, commercial fishermen and tribes, comes with a $1 billion price tag over the next 10 years and promises to restore fish populations and fish habitat in the Klamath river as well as ensure agriculture and cheap energy to Upper Basin farmers for decades to come.

But — as many have noted — it doesn't provide for the removal of four controversial dams owned by the Portland-based utility PacifiCorp. What those same folks fail to mention is that the Restoration Agreement doesn't purport to tackle the dam issue. A subset of the Klamath Settlement Group is already at work on an agreement with PacifiCorp, which they hope to finalize in February. If an agreement is reached, it will set in motion the largest peacetime dam removal project in history.

Of course, for many of the stakeholders involved in the settlement talks and their constituents, signing onto the Restoration Agreement — now open for public comment — is contingent upon dam removal.

"The agreement that was released would die on the vine if we don't negotiate a successful agreement with PacifiCorp [to remove the dams]," said Troy Fletcher of the Yurok Tribe last week.

For many, the Restoration Agreement represents an incredible compromise among people who, just three year ago, could hardly stand the thought of being in the same room with one another.

But others are less copacetic. The Hoopa Valley Tribe has already condemned it as "... an old West irrigation deal — guarantees for irrigators, empty promises for the Indians." The Oregonian ran an editorial last week titled, "A Klamath settlement that isn't," in which they recommended holding off on the celebratory champagne: "It's not really a settlement," the paper explained. "It's more like a real estate agent declaring he's got a great deal on a house for you, but the current owner doesn't know about it yet."

The message: PacifiCorp doesn't want dam removal. The even subtler message: PacifiCorp has been kept in the dark. And that mantra is one that — to the surprise of many stakeholders — the power company itself has adopted since the agreement was released last week and fed to the press.

"One questions what was settled," PacifiCorp spokesman Paul Vogel told the Klamath Falls-based paper Herald and Newslast week. "When the license holder and several hundred thousand customers didn't have a seat at the table, that is irresponsible. We initiated settlement talks three years ago. To have no part in crafting of this document, it really makes you ask yourself what substance there is to it."

Humboldt County Supervisor Jill Geist couldn't disagree more.

After a meeting Monday at the Northcoast Environmental Center, where she, the NEC's Erica Terence and Craig Tucker of the Karuk Tribe sat down to coordinate their group presentation on the Restoration Agreement for Tuesday's Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting, Geist and Tucker insisted that PacifiCorp had always been kept abreast of goings-on in the settlement talks. "It would be very disingenuous of them to say otherwise," Geist said.

For the record, it was PacifiCorp that initiated the settlement talks three years ago. Then, about a year and a half ago, stakeholders wanted to discuss basin-specific concerns, but thought it would be difficult to do so with a power company in the room. That's when PacifiCorp agreed to leave the table. That was also when separate hydropower talks got under way and a subgroup was elected to continue meeting with PacifiCorp.

"During the entire time that we were working on our own agreement we were sitting down on a dozen or so occasions [with PacifiCorp]," Chuck Bonham of Trout Unlimited, one of the 26 groups involved in the settlement talks, said last Friday. "By no means did we abandon dialog with PacifiCorp nor was the agreement a surprise [to them]."

When reached Monday, Vogel admitted that PacifiCorp had voluntarily left the table when basin-specific issues were being addressed. The problem, he said, was that the company's dams came back into the discussion. "When it came time to address the dams again, we weren't brought back in [to the talks] to ask how we felt about that," he said. "So basically you end up with a list of what everyone else wants and added to that is removing our dams and we really ought to be part of that conversation."

Tucker said Monday that the subgroup — an ad hoc committee consisting of somewhere between five to eight people, including feds, fishermen, farmers, environmentalists and tribes — met at least 16 times with PacifiCorp over the past year and a half.

Vogel said he wasn't aware that such meetings had ever taken place. He also complained that PacifiCorp never received a copy of the Restoration Agreement. He had to obtain it himself from a "media outlet," he said.

But Tucker said that David Diamond of the Department of the Interior, a participant in the settlement talks, sent a copy of the document to PacifiCorp Power President Rob Lasich the day it was released publicly. Diamond confirmed that Tuesday, describing it as a "courtesy" to the company; it wasn't strictly necessary, he said, since the Restoration Agreement tackles basin-specific issues, like water flows, which are outside of the power utility's purview. Hydropower talks, on the other hand, dealing specifically with the fate of Klamath's four dams, are still ongoing.

According to Tucker, Vogel's misinformation might have something to do with the fact that he's new on the job, having taken the post just last December.

But the NEC's Terence said Monday that PacifiCorp's "clueless approach" with the media may actually be a "divide and conquer strategy." She believes that the company's public stance intentionally puts into question whether or not the Restoration Agreement really represents the consensus of a unified group, which might make it easier for the company to undermine the agreement and keep their dams in, if that's what they want.

Hold on, didn't the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently conclude that dam removal is cheaper than dam re-licensing with additional fish ladders? Terence has also asked herself, "Why isn't this a no-brainer for PacifiCorp?" And the only thing she can think of is that PacifiCorp might not want to set a precedent in the industry by going through with what will be the biggest dam removal project in history.

But if the stakeholders in this lengthy, consensus-driven process have learned one thing over the years, it's that holding a grudge doesn't get you anywhere. "In fairness to PacifiCorp," Terence said, "if we can reach an agreement with them, this stuff will all be water under the bridge."

For Geist, it just reinforces why the 26 parties engaged in the settlement talks needed to consent to strict confidentiality agreements while talks were ongoing. The Restoration Agreement has been out in the public for just a week and already one of the major players, PacifiCorp, is reinventing the facts.

"What you've been seeing play out in a public fashion," Geist said Monday, "is what we've been dealing with for three years."


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