FERC on June 17 approved transferring the license of the 163 MW Lower Klamath River Hydroelectric Project from PacifiCorp to the Klamath River Renewal Corp. (KRRC) and the states of Oregon and California [P-2082], advancing a plan to decommission the four dams.
The agency said its order confirms that KRRC has the ability to undertake dam removal, and has, with the states as co-licensees, "the necessary legal and technical expertise required for such a huge undertaking."
The $450 million KRRC project would be the largest dam removal and river recovery effort in U.S. history, KRRC board President Jim Root said in a statement.
"The news from FERC is very positive and moves us forward on the long path to dam removal," said KRRC CEO Mark Bransom noted in the statement. "We must also secure FERC's approval of our surrender application, but today's decision by the commissioners certainly boosts our optimism about the road ahead."
California Gov. Gavin Newson, who along with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, supports the dam removals, tweeted his support for the FERC action, saying, "With this decision, we are one step closer to restoring access to 400 miles of salmon habitat, which will be a boon to the local economy."
PacifiCorp said in a statement that it is "pleased with the order and considers transfer of the license for the dams to be a key step toward successful implementation of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. The company remains fully supportive of the Klamath agreement to allow removal of the dams while providing certainty and protections for the company's electricity customers.
The Lower Klamath Project, located on the Klamath River in Klamath County, Ore., and Siskiyou County, Calif., comprises the southernmost four dams of the eight-dam Klamath Project: the J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and Iron Gate developments, and includes all but 6 MW of the full project.
Regulatory efforts to remove the dams and restore the river date back to February 2010, when PacifiCorp and 47 tribal, governmental and advocacy parties executed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which ultimately stalled because the federal legislation required to move it forward never passed.
An amended agreement executed in April 2016 to restart the plan would have transferred the license to KRRC, but that too stalled in July 2020 after FERC approved a partial license transfer on the condition that PacifiCorp remained as a co-licensee, a departure from the 2010 Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (CU No. 1962 ).
PacifiCorp rejected that plan and instead negotiated a new agreement announced in November to transfer the license to KRRC and the states (CU No. 1980 ).
Also under that agreement, Oregon, California and PacifiCorp would add another $45 million to the $50 million contingency fund covering cost overruns.
Several tribes dependent on the Klamath River are keen to see the dams come down and the river restored, particularly because fluctuations of river's flows can kill salmon. The most recent fish deaths began in early May, caused by the Bureau Reclamation's decision to not allow a surface flushing of the river that allowed a pathogen to take hold, the Yurok Tribe said (CU No. 2006 [10.2]).
"The transfer of the four dams represents a major milestone in the multigenerational effort to heal the Klamath River," said Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribal Council said in an emailed statement. "Dam removal needs to happen before it's too late for the imperiled Klamath salmon."
Echoing this, the Karuk Tribe is "very pleased with FERC's decision," said Karuk Tribal Council Chairman Russell Attebery. "It reflects the hard work of our partnership with PacifiCorp, California, Oregon, and the Yurok Tribe. After this year's massive fish kill, we need dam removal more than ever."
Regina Chichizola, co-director of advocacy group Save California Salmon, noted the critical timing of FERC's order—the spring Chinook the dams "nearly wiped" were listed under the California Endangered Species Act the day before the FERC decision, she said.
"Both of these wins were the result of decades of tribal and community led action for the Klamath River and they came at a time when we need to see a light at the end of the tunnel," Chichizola said. "The devastating juvenile fish kill we are experiencing on the Klamath River is directly related to the Klamath dams, as are the dismal salmon returns over the last couple decades."
The FERC order came days after U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland filed a letter with FERC in support of Klamath dam removal.
"Dam removal will restore salmonid fisheries, reestablish fish passage, improve water quality, and bring new recreation and economic opportunities to the [Klamath] Basin," Haaland wrote. "Moreover, removal will advance the Biden-Harris administrations' commitments to combat the climate crisis, increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change; protect public health; conserve our lands, waters, and biodiversity; deliver environmental justice; and fulfill the Federal Government's trust and treaty responsibilities."
The June 11 letter affirmed the agency's position during the Obama administration, and countermanded the one held while Trump was president, which withdrew from the matter, saying it was of no concern to Interior.