In a largely symbolic move, the U.S. Department of the Interior is pulling its support for removing four dams from the Klamath River, three of which are in far Northern California.
Recently-appointed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has rescinded a letter of support that Obama-era Interior Secretary Sally Jewell wrote in 2016, according to Jefferson Public Radio.
The reversal pleases U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., a long-time opponent of dam removal whose district includes Siskiyou County. The county is home to Iron Gate Dam and Copco dams No. 1 and No. 2, which are slated for demolition.
“Before Secretary Bernhardt was confirmed as head of Interior, I made it clear to him our wishes for the Department to retract the letter of support for Klamath Dam removal issued under the Obama administration," LaMalfa says in a statement. "I’m glad to see he listened to our concerns."
However, the reversal has no legal effect, counters Matt Cox of the Klamath River Renewal Corp. The KRRC is a private entity created by state and federal authorities and the dams' owner, PacifiCorp, to assume ownership of the dams and restore the river's natural flows to aid downstream fisheries.
Not a requirement
"That letter was not a requirement of that agreement.," Cox tells JPR, "so withdrawing that letter certainly has no material effect on the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement or the project moving forward."
But LaMalfa argues the course reversal "is a big victory for those fighting this misguided dam removal and a positive development for Northern California.
"Siskiyou and Klamath counties have voted overwhelmingly to retain the dams," LaMalfa says. Klamath County in Southern Oregon is home to the John C. Boyle Dam, which is also set for removal.
Bernhard's letter was addressed to Kimberly Bose, secretary of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is now considering whether to grant permits to the Klamath River Renewal Corp. to remove the dams. The State Water Resources Control Board is also considering a permit application, JPR notes.
Removal of the dams has been under discussion among local, state and federal agencies for more than a decade and generated controversy among growers in the Klamath Basin, which straddles the California-Oregon state line. Though the dams don't provide water for irrigation, some growers and political leaders fear the dams' removal will drive up energy costs and perhaps lead to reductions in water for farms.
Contractor already hired
In April, the KRRC gave an initial $18.1 million contract to Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. of Fairfield, Calif., to remove the dams. This winter, Kiewit wrapped up a 2-year, estimated $1.1 billion project to rebuild the Oroville Dam's spillways, which nearly failed amid heavy storms in February 2017.
Additional excavation, materials and other costs raised the Oroville project's price tag from the $870 million that the state Department of Water Resources had projected early last year.
For the Klamath project, Kiewit will study the project site and develop a detailed project design, including obtaining competitive bids for various elements of the work, before negotiating a guaranteed maximum price with the KRRC, according to a news release.