Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery and Joseph L. James, OREGONLIVE
Attebery is chairman of the Karuk Tribe. James is chairman of the Yurok Tribe.
For nearly 20 years, Klamath River tribes and our allies have fought tirelessly to see the removal of four aging Klamath River dams. We have engaged in protests, attended countless meetings, commissioned technical reports, filed lawsuits and negotiated directly with dam owner PacifiCorp and dozens of other stakeholders. For us, dam removal is absolutely necessary to restore our struggling fisheries, maintain cultural practices, and provide tribal members who struggle to make ends meet access to traditional subsistence foods.
At the same time, dam removal and fisheries restoration would help our neighbors who depend on agriculture as well, resulting in fewer regulatory burdens and greater water security for them. That win-win for struggling rural communities in the Klamath Basin helped bring us together to negotiate with the dam owner, PacifiCorp. It wasn’t easy, but by building trust and respect one discussion at a time, we – along Oregon, California and PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway – signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement in 2016.
It seemed a historic success. In exchange for supporting dam removal, PacifiCorp was assured that its financial contribution for such an effort would be capped at $200 million. In addition, the agreement called for protecting the utility from liability by transferring the license of the dams to an independent nonprofit entity before the dam removal process starts.
Unfortunately, PacifiCorp is now rethinking its commitment to that agreement, after a July ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission, which must approve the license transfer, decided that PacifiCorp could partially transfer the dams to the Klamath River Renewal Corp., the nonprofit created to manage the dam removal and related environmental restoration activities. But the commission ruled that PacifiCorp must remain a co-licensee.
FERC expressed concern that the nonprofit could face challenges in dam removal that may require PacifiCorp’s expertise in removing dams, which it has done in other watersheds.
While we hoped that FERC would allow PacifiCorp to make a clean break from the Klamath dams prior to their removal, the commission did not. While the merits of FERC’s decision as a policy matter can be debated, it leaves PacifiCorp with a big decision: either forge ahead with the rest of the agreement, which still includes the $200 million cap on contributions from ratepayers, or risk falling back into the morass of disputes surrounding the dams that existed before the agreement.
PacifiCorp said it wants to reopen negotiations. But the 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.
We are thoroughly convinced that staying the course we negotiated remains PacifiCorp’s best option by far. The tribes and our partners have been working steadily toward our shared goal over the past several years, raising $450 million to pay for dam removal, including $200 million from PacifiCorp ratepayers. That additional $250 million – from the State of California – would otherwise be unavailable to PacifiCorp and maintains California, Oregon, Tribes, fishermen, and conservation groups as allies.
If PacifiCorp chooses to terminate the agreement and instead attempt to relicense and continue operating these dams, it will not only face the uncertain costs to mitigate impacts to fish and water quality (projected to soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars), but it will also face new lawsuits, new protests, and a long list of disappointed decision makers that supported the agreement. What’s more, it will drive Klamath salmon ever closer to extinction, which will have profound economic and cultural implications for tribes, commercial fishing families, and the agricultural community.
Although the FERC order last week means that Warren Buffett may not get what he wants but he can still get what he needs: the best deal possible for ratepayers and shareholders. We strongly urge PacifiCorp and Buffett’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway, to follow through on their commitment to Klamath River tribes and communities to remove the dams as soon as possible. The Karuk and Yurok Tribes want to continue as PacifiCorp’s partners as we work collaboratively to create a brighter future for communities throughout the Klamath Basin.