Copco No. 1 Dam

Copco No. 1 Dam in Siskiyou County, Calif.

Two new applications with FERC to surrender and transfer a license for the four lower Klamath River dams, as a prelude to their removal, are drawing dozens of comments and motions to intervene from individuals, organizations, tribes, government agencies and elected officials.

On Nov. 17, PacifiCorp and KRRC filed an amended application to surrender the license for Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, Iron Gate and J.C. Boyle dams [P-14803, P-2082] on the Klamath River in California and Oregon—a necessary step toward removing the dams and restoring a free-flowing lower river (CU No. 1985 [9]).

And on Jan. 13, they were joined by the states of California and Oregon in a joint application for a license transfer, and a request for expedited review.

FERC in December solicited comments and motions through Feb. 16 to intervene in the surrender application. The commission is now soliciting comments and motions to intervene through March 19 in the joint transfer application.

A decades-long effort to remove the dams was derailed in July when FERC ruled PacifiCorp must remain a co-license holder due to its expertise and operational experience in removing dams.

PacifiCorp rejected FERC's order, and instead hammered out a new agreement to transfer the license to KRRC and to the states of Oregon and California.

The recent filings for license surrender and transfer have reopened the debate over the dams-removal proposal, which is estimated to cost a maximum of $446 million.

Proponents say the free-flowing river will restore native salmon runs, improve water quality and offer restorative justice for Indigenous people who long depended on the river. Opponents see removal of the dams as a risky proposal that would take away reliable hydroelectric power, and bring massive and unknown changes to homeowners who live around the reservoirs used for recreation and as a water source for fighting wildfires.

A motion by the Yurok Tribe to intervene in the matter says the tribe has witnessed destruction of the river, and the dams have caused some of the most harmful impacts.

"Built without salmon ladders, the dams have blocked over 400 miles of salmon habitat, contributed to impaired water quality, and have severely harmed the river's ecosystem," the motion states. It says runs of spring Chinook, coho and steelhead that once brought 500,000 to 1 million fish back to the river each year are now 5-10 percent of their historic size.

Three U.S. senators and a congressman are among those sending a letter of support for expedited review of the application seeking to transfer the license.

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeffrey Merkley joined California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Jared Huffman in signing a letter filed with FERC Feb. 18 supporting the transfer application, and noting widespread support from the states of California and Oregon, the Yurok and Karuk tribes, PacifiCorp and leading conservation groups.

"FERC has already extensively evaluated the Renewal Corporation's capacity and found that it is qualified to be a co-licensee for purposes of dam removal. Now, with the two states as co-licensees, that capacity is unquestionable," it says.

Oregon state Rep. E. Werner Reschke (R-Klamath Falls) sent a letter filed Feb. 16 opposing both the transfer and surrender applications.

"This transfer is being done so PacifiCorp can avoid any major liability for the removal of these perfectly good-functioning hydropower dams along the Klamath River," his letter states.

Reschke said if the removal is successful, it will be used as a template for taking out other hydropower dams across the West. His reasons for opposing the license transfer and surrender include the importance of retaining hydropower as affordable and reliable electricity; the overwhelming opposition to removing the dams by people who live in Siskiyou County, Calif., and Klamath County, Ore. where the dams are located; and concerns about the impact of removing dams on water temperature, flooding, and river ecology.

In a Feb. 12 newsletter, KRRC says they're hoping FERC will act quickly on its applications.

"While we are steadfastly working toward the goal of dam removal in 2023, we underscore that our project is subject to decisions and processes outside our control, such as the timeline for FERC to undertake various actions associated with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)," the newsletter states.

"We, like our supporters, are eager to see the river run free and salmon return to historic habitat above the dams. However, we can assure the public that KRRC is undergoing every required state and federal permitting process to meet the rigorous environmental review, public safety, and public input requirements," it says.

The newsletter notes that on-the-ground work continues. "In January, a KRRC contractor crew performed a geotechnical investigation, including digging a test pit on the construction access road leading to Copco #1 and #2 Dams. A series of seismic and ground penetrating radar surveys, coupled with physical measurements, will provide the data needed to create robust roads capable of safely accommodating the massive equipment and heavy loads that will be part of dam deconstruction."

The newsletter also lists numerous projects that need to be completed, including finalizing a memorandum of understanding with Oregon regarding compliance terms and conditions, submitting a biological assessment to FERC under the Endangered Species Act and completing field work for cultural resource surveys.

The California Natural Resources Agency said in its comment letter that the removal effort hinges on a timely decision by FERC.

"The Amended License Surrender Application anticipates pre-drawdown construction activity to commence in Spring 2022," the letter states, and later adds, "We hope that the Commission concurs that the applicants' advance work on environmental review and consultations will allow the Commission to take swift action to approve the plans for surrender.

More than three dozen groups, tribes and governmental agencies filed a motion to intervene, including recreation, fishing and environmental groups; state agencies and municipalities; tribes; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.