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Is This the Beginning of the End for Damming America's Big Rivers?

A fight in the Pacific Northwest over what would be the largest dam removal project has drawn an incredible cast of characters.
 
 
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Usually shareholders meetings don't include traditional Native American salmon bakes and intertribal healing dances. But at the recent shareholders meeting for Berkshire Hathaway -- owned by investment icon Warren Buffett -- Omaha, Neb., got a taste of native culture -- all the way from the Pacific Northwest.

Yet the tribes -- the Karuk, Yurok, and Hoopa of California, and the Klamath Tribes of Oregon -- weren't there to sing Buffett's praises like most of the attendees. They were there to introduce people to threatened native cultures and let Buffett know he made a really bad investment a few years back when his subsidiary Mid-American Energy Holdings bought power company PacifiCorp.

By doing so, Buffett, who is known as one of the world's savviest investors, landed himself in the middle of a social justice and environmental conflagration. While Buffett's investments are making many millionaires, his company is impoverishing the people of the Klamath Basin in Southern Oregon and Northern California who depend on a now ailing Klamath River for their livelihoods and cultural traditions.

The tribal members, who are part of a coalition of native tribes, environmentalists and fishermen, were at the shareholders meeting to pressure PacifiCorp to help save near endangered salmon populations by removing four hydropower dams on the Klamath River, which snakes from the central Oregon-California border, out to the Pacific Ocean, 20 miles south of Crescent City.

The dams are blocking fish passage to necessary spawning grounds and water trapped behind them creates a bath tub affect, heating up the river and causing toxic algae blooms that threaten the health of salmon populations, which tribal members depend on for food and fishermen depend on to make a living. Today 90 percent of the members of the once resource-rich tribes like the Karuk are living below the poverty line, and downstream fishermen have seen their income fall by up to 90 percent in recent years.

If the dams come down, it would be the biggest dam removal project in U.S. history and would revitalize one of the country's best salmon rivers and one of the region's last subsistence economies.

The prospect used to be a big "if," but lately the coalition has been gaining momentum and is backed by local, state and federal agencies. They even have environmental advocate Robert Kennedy Jr. and top lawyer Joe Cotchett (who is currently representing Valerie Plame in her suit against the Bush administration).

The coalition believes they are solidly in the right in terms of environmental concerns, social justice and even economics. All they really need is for the power company to see the light -- and they are hoping Warren Buffett can be the spark.

"We have been hoping Warren will realize these dams are a bad investment and realize that they are causing disease and poverty all over the north coast and southern Oregon," said Regina Chichizola of the organization Klamath River Keeper. "We are hoping that he will realize that if he is going to be a philanthropist, trying to solve issues of disease and poverty in third-world countries that these dams are causing the same issues that he is trying to fight in other places."

A river, a culture threatened

As a massive Omaha arena was filled with 27,000 shareholders, Warren Buffett took questions from the crowd -- an adoring crowd -- of people made wealthy by his business decisions. "Everyone basically stood up and talked about how wonderful he was and how they were going to name their first born son Warren," said Craig Tucker who works for the Karuk Tribe and attended the shareholders meeting.

But then Ronnie Pellegrini of Eureka, Calif., stood up and told Buffett how her family, who fish for Pacific salmon, lost 90 percent of their income last year because the fishery was virtually closed for 700 miles of coast line.

And Windy George of the Hoopa Tribe stood up with five girls dressed in Brush Dance regalia, a traditional healing dance, and asked Buffett to meet with the tribes to understand what the loss of salmon means to the native people.

"We felt like it would be inappropriate to show up and lay all the blame at the feet of Warren Buffett, because he has this massive empire and this is a tiny piece of it," said Tucker. "Our intent was for him to know about the Klamath River, know where it was, and that the dams that he owns are having a devastating impact on people's lives, and it is in his own self-interest to do the right thing."

For the last two years, a group of 28 different parties consisting of state agencies, farmers, fishermen, environmentalists and tribal members have been trying to reach a settlement in the basin over water.

The Upper Basin of the Klamath watershed that feeds the headwaters of the Klamath River is one of the country's largest irrigation projects. In the early 1900s the Bureau of Reclamation began draining the wetlands and lakes in the area to entice settlers to farm. For the last hundred years, the high desert has been transformed into farmland -- at a large environmental cost.

But, in recent years, increasing water shortages have caused conflict between farmers and fishermen. As farmers remove water from the river for irrigation, less is left for salmon populations. The conflict erupted in 2002 when a massive fish die-off occurred, killing 70,000 adult salmon on their way to the spawning ground and devastating the fishing industry.

Four dams on the river have exacerbated these water shortages. "The dams are the single biggest impediment to having a healthy, sustainable, harvestable fishery on the Klamath River," said Tucker.

The dams block over 300 miles of spawning habitat for salmon -- cutting off some of the best areas for the fish, as well as denying fishing access entirely to the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, who live above the dams and who have a federally mandated treaty right to be able to take salmon for subsistence.

Downstream, where the Karuk, Hoopa, and Yurok -- the three biggest tribes in California -- as well as thousands of commercial fishermen live, things are even worse.

"The lower river suffers from all the water quality problems that the dams create," said Glen Spain of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the largest trade association of commercial fishermen. "The water behind Iron Gate Dam is just a giant hot water bathtub. That creates massive algae blooms including some of the worst toxic algae blooms in the world." A survey last year by the U.S. EPA and the Karuk Tribe found the toxicity was 3,900 times the World Health Organization's standards.

The effect on fishermen has been severe. When salmon populations are below a certain level on the Klamath, it impacts the entire coast's fishery. "It affects thousands -- all the way down to Monterey and all the way up to the Columbia River," said Spain. "It affects the whole chain of commerce -- if ports can't deliver the fish, then warehouses don't have fees, the moorage fees don't get paid, people lose their boats, people's mortgages don't get paid, they can't shop, the processors don't have fish, they can't deliver product to restaurants, they can't export. It is a massive problem. Right now Congress has earmarked $60.4 million in disaster assistance to those communities. We estimate that the total economic coast was nearly $100 million -- and that is just for the loss of one year's fishery."

It's about the money

Although the dams have caused problems, including treaty violations since they were first built beginning in 1917, the effort to remove them has gained traction recently because the dams are up for relicensing. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is a federal agency that issues 50-year licenses for private companies to operate power dams.

This is the first time that these dams will be reviewed in the modern era of environmental law and policy. They will be subjected to the standards of the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act and other state regulatory measures.

"A lot has changed since the last relicensing. The power grid has expanded, we have multiple other sources of energy and options for replacing the dams we didn't have before," said Spain. "We have stronger environmental regulation, and we now are acutely aware of the impact the dams have on an incredibly valuable salmon run. The Klamath typically generated the third largest salmon run in the nation. To extinguish those runs to generate a few megawatts of power is not a cost-effective solution."

But PacifiCorp is not as quick to dismiss their facility. According to Tom Gauntt of PacifiCorp, the four dams generate 169 megawatts for about 70,000 residences and he said the company intends to keep working with parties to come to a settlement but would not comment on whether the company was considering removing the dams.

Those opposed to the dams believe PacifiCorp will run into problems trying to have the dams relicensed. The Department of Interior and Commerce ruled in January that PacifiCorp must include ladders for fish passage. But the cost of doing so would be even greater than removing the dams altogether and getting replacement power -- about $100 million more, according to a report from the California Energy Commission and the Department of the Interior.

But the economics are not an easy issue. Installing fish ladders, while expensive, is something the company can pass off as an improvement and put the burden of the expense on customers.

"They don't want the precedent coming out that they are going to remove dams," said Chichizola. "That is the thing that will hurt them. They don't want to have to deal with dam removal, and they don't want to have to deal with fish populations, and they don't want to have to deal with Native American tribes. It is way easier for them to put the cost on the ratepayers."

Environmental groups argue that the turbines on the dams produce only 2 percent of the company's overall power and could be replaced using alternative energy, although PacifiCorp denies that wind or solar could replace "steady hydropower."

But pressure is now coming from many different sides. The fisheries department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency run by appointees from the Bush administration also recommended that the best way to achieve fish passage in the Klamath River was to remove the four dams.

However, only FERC can mandate that the dams come down, and the commission is composed of five presidentially appointed officials "who all have ties to the energy industry," said Tucker. "It is a classic example of the fox guarding the hen house."

FERC will likely be releasing their decision on the fate of the dams sometime soon. The commission filed a draft Environmental Impact State last year. "They concluded that dam removal was probably the best option," said Spain. "And at least two dams should come down. You never hear FERC say that. They are an agency that has never seen a dam they didn't like."

The final EIS is due in a month and PacifiCorp also faces tests by state water quality certification processes, which may be a serious problem for the company.

The backup plan

Despite the overwhelming evidence against the dams, opponents aren't counting on FERC to resolve the measure.

Two lawsuits are currently being filed that may be needed if FERC doesn't mandate the dam removal. One involves a fish hatchery that the company was required to build to replace salmon populations but now fails to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act. Another is a lawsuit that alleges the dams constitute a public nuisance because of the threat of toxic algae -- a serious health risk to wildlife and humans.

A separate settlement process that involves larger basin water issues and includes the farmers is also under way. Opponents hope to influence company shareholders and Buffett himself by attending shareholder meetings every year until the dams come down, said Chichizola.

"People in the basin now see that the basin is interconnected. We have been tied together for generations by this umbilical cord called the Klamath River," said Spain. "All the politicking in the world -- all the protests and marches and congressmen in the world aren't going to create more rain. We have to live within our means. We have been lurching for the last two decades from crisis to crisis in the basin."

If the dams are removed it will be not only a huge environmental victory, but it would be a significant achievement for coalition building -- bringing together industry, farmers, fishermen, and native tribes -- parties who have historically been pitted against each other.

"I think the Klamath River is a prototypical example of all that has gone wrong with Western water law and water policy," said Spain. "But it is also one of the few rivers where all the pieces are there for restoration. People will need to change and many communities are afraid of change. There have to be compromises along the way, and many people don't want to compromise. But the status quo is no longer viable."

And the Klamath may set the stage for dam removal in other areas. Currently there are 75,000 dams in the United States blocking 600,000 miles of river. In the West, over 100 salmon runs have gone extinct and 25 are listed as endangered. Residents in areas like the Klamath have been questioning the worth of many dams. and their voices are finally beginning to be heard.

"PacifiCorp and Warren Buffett do not own the Klamath River," said Tucker. "The federal government has given them permission to use the river to make electricity, and every 50 years the question is asked, 'What is the public benefit?' We are arguing that if you answer that question honestly, these dams do more harm than good."

Tara Lohan is a managing editor at AlterNet.

 
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