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The U.S. Department of Interior has retracted an Obama-era support letter for the decommissioning of four hydroelectric dams on the lower Klamath River.

Back in 2016, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell penned a letter urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to approve the removal of the dams. But a few days ago, in a brief and succinct letter from Secretary David Bernhardt, the Department changed course.

While the letter is not a “decision document,” it does constitute a major setback for the proposed project. Bernhardt is the figurehead for at least four federal agencies (including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation) that will be highly influential in the process, should FERC decide to move ahead with decommissioning. Those agencies will have to perform extensive environmental and economic impact analyses prior to the project’s advancement.

Former Secretary Jewell’s letter was a thumb on the scale, an indicator to the agencies of the desired outcome of their analyses. As of May 17, that heavily weighted thumb has officially been removed.

Cart before the horse?

But aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves? FERC has not even determined whether the corporation created to remove the dams (the Klamath River Restoration Corporation) has the “legal and technical capacity” to take over the operating license from the current owner, PacifiCorp.

Meanwhile, FERC has asked the corporation some pretty tough questions — like how will you shoulder the liability attached to this, and could you please re-analyze your cost estimate — which seems a little low? So far, these questions have remained largely unanswered.

The truth is, the environmental and economic havoc this project could unleash poses costs and risks that have never been fully analyzed or addressed.

Siskiyou County, home to three of the four dams, has made extensive comments regarding the extreme damage that could result from this, the largest dam decommissioning in history.

In February, PacifiCorp, one of the most important signatories to the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Facilities Agreement, published comments similar to the county’s, stating that decommissioning is something the company “is unwilling to undertake because of the substantial risks and uncertain benefits.”

Risky business

What are those risks? Flooding was a significant problem prior to the dams. The 100-year flood plain after decommissioning will undoubtedly encroach on homes, and property values will plummet.

The community of Copco, nestled along the shores of Copco Lake, will become a ghost town once the lake disappears. Residents’ wells are at risk of drying up, and bank instability could cause houses to slough into the now-dry reservoir pit.

No longer will water from the lake be there to save the community from wildfires—which has happened twice in the past few years.

Twenty- to 30-million cubic feet of sediment will be released into the river upon decommissioning, and as Siskiyou County and PacifiCorp have pointed out, the corporation’s conclusions on sediment transport down-river have been “highly simplified opinions” that are not supported by analysis.

Two years of fish kills

Decommissioning will likely result in long-term suspended sediment that will harm fish. And according to a government analysis from 2012, releasing millions of tons of contaminated sediment into the river will likely kill significant aquatic life for a period of at least two years. What could this mean for salmon, and the habitat they utilize along the Klamath River — which is the purported catalyst for decommissioning?

And how does decommissioning address water quality issues that begin well above the dams? The upper stretches of the Klamath are naturally high in nitrogen and phosphorus, and the dams in fact act as filters for those natural pollutants, as well as for non-natural pollutants.

When decommissioning fails to provide more and better water for salmon, regulators will undoubtedly demand water from farmers and ranchers in the Upper Basin and on tributaries to the Klamath.

Loss of critical habitat

And let’s not forget the “protected” Lost River and short nose suckers, two species that will lose critical habitat and two entire populations in the John Boyle and Copco reservoirs.

These are the same endangered suckers that stakeholders have been struggling to save, that Tribes are in fear of losing forever, and that have been dramatically impacting the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.

Siskiyou County acknowledges the fact that there are water quality and quantity problems that need to be solved, and continues to work hard to resolve these issues for everyone in the Klamath Watershed.

Decommissioning the dams, however, does not address the real problems, and poses great risk to the ecological and economic viability of the County.

— Siskiyou County Natural Resources. Read more about the turning tide on Siskiyou County’s Natural Resources webpage: www.co.siskiyou.ca.us/naturalresources