The US Department of the Interior recently released a draft report analyzing the economic and environmental impacts of removing four dams in the Klamath River Basin. The report frames a public debate over water rights, natural resource management, and dam removal.
Long home to prodigious salmon runs and a vibrant ecosystem, several of the rivers in the Klamath system were dammed in the 1900s. Today, four of these dams - J.C. Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate - are owned by utility PacifiCorp. Over time, fish numbers in the Klamath River declined precipitously; according to the report, numbers of many species like salmon are reduced over 90% from historical levels. In 2006, after a 50-year term, the FERC license for the four dams expired.
Activism by environmental groups and others frustrated PacifiCorp's plans to relicense the dams, and ultimately led stakeholders to sign two key agreements governing the basin: the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement in 2010. Under the terms of those agreements, the four named dams would be removed.
The Draft Klamath Dam Removal Overview Report for the Secretary of the Interior (333 page PDF) bills itself as an assessment of scientific and technical information about the proposal. The report found that dam removal would cost between $238 million and $493 million, with $292 million as the most likely cost. Notably, these estimates are well below the amount previously projected for dam removal. Dam removal would release sediment that could kill salmon in the short term, but the agency found that dam removal would create more habitat and could increase adult chinook salmon production by about 83 percent.
If the dams are to be removed, Congress will have to authorize their removal. Together, the dams can produce up to 163 megawatts of power, and produce about 716,800 megawatt-hours per year. While this is relatively small compared to national demand for electricity, existing hydroelectric generation is relatively low-cost compared to alternative sources of power. Existing hydro also is generally viewed as emissions-free and relatively benign from an environmental perspective, especially compared to fossil fuel resources like coal and oil. Nevertheless, the draft report suggests that the benefits of removal will exceed retaining the dams in place by a factor of between 9 and 48.
Will this be enough to justify their removal?