By: Bruce Shoemaker, guest blogger

The proposed removal of four aging dams on the Klamath River in far-northern California and southern Oregon is at a crucial juncture. Following sustained campaigning by tribal and environmental groups, what is likely the largest proposed dam removal project to date world-wide, one that has huge implications for the international movements for river restoration and against the continued damming of the world’s rivers, had been set to commence next year, with physical removal to begin in early 2022.

By blocking upstream habitat, the Klamath dams have been implicated in crashing salmon numbers, to the point where many of the river’s historic salmon runs are now in severe and worsening decline. The dams’ reservoirs produce toxic blue-green algae which has greatly impaired the river’s water quality. Above all, the removal of the Klamath dams is an issue of environmental justice for the tribes whose livelihoods and cultures have being decimated by these dams. 

The four dams are currently owned by Pacific Power, a subsidiary of PacifiCorp, which is in turn owned by billionaire Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company. A multiparty pact agreed to in 2016 by PacifiCorp, the affected Tribes, the States of California and Oregon, federal agencies and many other groups set a dam removal process in motion. A key aspect is the ownership transfer of the dams to the non-profit Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which is to be responsible for dam removal and related restoration. Removal costs are to be paid for by $250 million in public money from the State of California and another $200 million collected from PacifiCorp ratepayers through a special surcharge. Many conservation leaders had to swallow hard at giving PacifiCorp such a sweet deal, but decided it was worth it just to get the dams down as quickly as possible. 

This pact required the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In July, after an extended review, FERC approved the majority of the agreement with a key exception–PacifiCorp does not get to walk away from all liability. In many ways this is a positive precedent –implying that the public interest is not served by allowing a utility to make a fortune off an environmentally damaging dam and then being able to walk away with no residual liability. 

However, PacifiCorp has now balked at proceeding with this agreement, saying they need time to study the issue and do not want to be responsible for any potential liability over and above the public and ratepayer funds already committed to the project. This despite the fact that if the pact collapses, PacifiCorp ratepayers will be on the hook for retrofitting the dams to allow for fish passage and improved water quality, something that would cost many hundreds of millions of dollars– much more than the cost of dam removal and without public funding.

It is likely that PacifiCorp is delaying action in hopes of being rewarded with even more public subsidies and guarantees–and in anticipation of ongoing annual extensions of its outdated and expired operating license–allowing it to, in the meantime, continue making profits off the dams without addressing their many flaws. However, every delay in dam removal further imperils salmon recovery, contributes to the river’s deteriorating water quality and perpetuates an ongoing injustice against Karuk, Yurok and Klamath tribal people.

The clock is ticking. FERC wants an answer. California and Oregon want an answer. Tribes want an answer. The conservation community wants an answer. Every delay further endangers critically important salmon runs. Warren Buffett and PacifiCorp are in a position to simultaneously do something extraordinary for one of the great rivers of the West and help right a longstanding environmental injustice while making a very prudent financial decision for their ratepayers and shareholders. PacifiCorp needs to stop delaying and accept the conditions laid down by FERC—now.

A new campaign has been launched to convince PacifiCorp to accept FERC’s ruling and proceed with dam removal as soon as possible.  On July 28th over 100 organizations, including International Rivers, released this letter. Earlier in the month, California Governor Gavin Newsome wrote a letter to Warren Buffett asking him to proceed with dam removal. National publications have carried a number of articles and commentary pieces, including this August 19th piece by Jacques Leslie in the Los Angeles Times and this piece by Frankie Myers, Yurok tribal vice-chair, published in Indian Country Today on September 4th.

We need your help to ensure the timely removal of the Klamath River dams. The more people Warren Buffett and his companies hear from on this issue the better.

Here are ways you can help:

  1. Sign the online petition to Warren Buffett HERE
  2. For more impact, write your own individual letter to Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway asking them to have PacifiCorp accept the FERC agreement and proceed with the dam removal process without further delay.

Warren Buffett Contact Information

Warren E. Buffett, CEO
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
3555 Farnam Street
Omaha, NE 68131

berkshire@berkshirehathaway.com

Bruce Shoemaker is a researcher living in northern California on a tributary of the Klamath River. He has researched river-based livelihoods and the impacts of hydropower dams in the Mekong basin of Southeast Asia, often in cooperation with International Rivers, for more than two decades. He is now assisting International Rivers in engaging in the Klamath dam removal initiative and will be writing occasional articles as this process continues to unfold.

Featured image: Areal image the Copco 1 dam, one of four dams on the Klamath River slated for removal| Photo credit: Klamath River Renewal Corporation