Klamath River Basin Restoration

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Detailed Description

Dennis Lynch, USGS scientist and Department of Interior's Program Manager for the Klamath Basin Secretarial Determination, brings us up to speed on recent developments in the Klamath River Basin restoration. Developments include the signing of two historic agreements that attempt to provide long term solutions to one of the West's most challenging conflicts over how water is balanced among the many different needs of the local community. In addition, the Department of the Interior recently established a new website KlamathRestoration.gov to inform the public of progress on these agreements and allow them a chance to comment and receive updates on the Klamath Settlement process.


Episode Number: 9

Date Taken:

Location Taken: US


[Intro Music: Scott Pemberton Trio, Little Bobby Cobalt]

[Segment #1: Introduction to Klamath River Basin]

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Hello and welcome. This is the USGS Oregon Science Podcast for Wednesday, June 23, 2010. I’m Steven Sobieszczyk.

Today we’re talking about Klamath River Basin restoration. This subject has garnered quite a bit of national interest over the last few years due to the sensitive balance of competing interests in the region. Limited resources for this shared watershed have forced farmers, fishermen, environmentalists, and regulators to balance their own needs against those of others around them. Most years the Klamath River supplies enough water to meet everyone’s allotted requirements; however, during droughts, such as in 2001, a lack of water hinders irrigation to agricultural lands and can threaten fish populations, some of which are commercially important, others of which are listed as endangered or threatened species. To help quell tensions in the region, a diverse group of stakeholders, after years of negotiations, developed a plan to balance the water needs of farms, fish, tribes, and others.  

It was pointed out in a press release back in February that potentially four dams on the Klamath River could be removed, in essence, making this the largest river restoration project in U.S. history. And the largest dam removal effort in the world. The dams in question are Iron Gate, J.C. Boyle, Copco 1 and Copco 2. The dam removal proposal and the plan to restore fisheries and provide water supply certainty to communities and water users in the basin were laid out in two agreements. These documents include the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA).

In short, the KBRA addresses the need to restore natural fish populations and establish a reliable water supply that can promote a healthy and sustainable Klamath River Basin for farms, tribes, and fish.

The KHSA calls on the Interior Secretary to make a decision as to whether the dam removal proposal (1) will advance the restoration of Klamath River salmon and (2) is in the public interest. The KHSA lays out the process for additional studies that are needed so the Secretary can make a fully informed decision on the removal the four dams. This decision also constitutes a “federal action.” That means, in addition to the call for more research that the Secretary ordered as a result of the KHSA, this process also has to meet the terms of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which will require a robust analysis of the environmental impacts of the proposed agreements.

Due to the impact that these decisions will have on the local communities, the Department of the Interior has reached out to the public for their input on the environmental analysis. There is currently an open public comment period where people are being asked to identify topics and issues that they want to see in the analysis. The comment period opened June 16 and will remain open through Wednesday, July 21. Comments can be made on the Klamath Restoration website at KlamathRestoration.gov by following the “contact us” link at the top of the page.

To help explain how this process is laid out and better explain just what is involved in these two agreements, I’m joined by USGS scientist and Department of the Interior Program Manager for the Klamath Basin Secretarial Determination, Dennis Lynch. I’m so glad you can join me today.

[thank you]

First off, could you briefly explain how and why these two Klamath Basin Agreements came about and what is in them?

[Dennis Lynch] Steve, for several decades there has been serious water supply issues in the Klamath Basin. As you mentioned, these don’t occur every year, but in years where we have below normal precipitation, we do run into some pretty serious problems. In many years we simply do not have adequate water to simultaneously meet the demands for the farming community; the need for wildlife refuges that support the Pacific Flyway for birds; we have needs for instream flows for fish including many salmon species; and maintain lake levels in Upper Klamath Lake to protect two endangered fish species, as well. As a result, during these past decades we’ve had a number of major fish die-off events, we’ve had several disruptive curtailments of water to farms for irrigated agriculture. Which includes this year; this has been a very difficult year. We’ve had a 700 mile ban on coastal salmon fishing in Oregon and California, and we’ve serious disease issues in juvenile salmon. These created some real serious problems for the farming communities, for commercial fishermen, and Indian Tribes, and a number of others folks in the basin. In addition to water supply, the presence of the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River has been a barrier for salmon passage for nearly 100 years.

The situation is the Klamath Basin has really reached the state of crisis. And about five years ago a number of disparate parties got together with the goal of crafting some agreements (negotiated agreements) to put in place a durable solution to the problems I just mentioned. These are really historic agreements because people on all sides of the issues finally came together in an attempt to find real solutions. It’s very exciting to be a part of this process.

So, one of the agreements, as you mentioned, is aimed at removing the four dams in an environmentally sensitive way, and the other agreement is aimed at improving things like flow conditions, water levels, water quality, and physical habitat for fish.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Because these agreements have been signed, is it a foregone conclusion that these four hydropower dams are coming out?

[Dennis Lynch] No, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that dam removal and habitat restoration would really benefit fish and whether these activities are truly in the public interest. For the Secretary to make an informed decision, my team was asked to answer 4 large questions, and I’ll go over them briefly:

First one is, “could dam removal be accomplished for $450 million dollars?” And that’s the maximum amount that’s theoretically available for this task. And that would come from the states of Oregon and California? So that’s question #1.

The other question is, “would it truly help advance fish populations, with particular emphasis on salmon, steelhead, and other trout?” That’s a really important question.

“Could it be done without large risks to humans and the environment?” It’s another important question.

And the last one is really a tricky question, “would it be in the public interest?” Public interest includes local communities, it includes tribes, and it includes the nation as a whole. And it also includes economic costs and benefits. And there are also a lot of non-monetary costs and benefits we’re going to be looking at and some of those would include just the value of protecting Tribal trust resources. So we have a large multi-agency team gathering the information to answer these four questions so that the Secretary can make a determination, yes or no, no later than March of 2012.  

[Steven Sobieszczyk] You mentioned a bunch of agencies, what are these agencies that are involved in these technical studies that are meant to inform the Secretary of Interior's decision?

[Dennis Lynch] We have many Federal agencies; this is a very large group of scientists and other technical folks. This includes:  Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA-Fisheries, Bureau of Reclamation, (my agency) US Geological Survey, BLM, Bureau of Indian Affairs, EPA, Forest Service, among several others. In addition, we’re working very closely with California Department of Fish and Game. We have to make sure the dam removal follows laws specific to the state of California, as well. So we’re working really closely with the California agencies. In addition, we are reaching out to tribes…we’re reaching out to other state and local agencies to tap into their knowledge base to make sure we have the complete picture.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Can you describe a little bit about both the scientific studies and the environmental analysis that will be used by the Secretary to make his decision?

[Dennis Lynch] Yes, there’s a lot more than I can describe right now, but I’ll give you a flavor of the type of new information we are developing. For example, we are developing a detailed engineering plan for how dams could be deconstructed and how reservoir sites could be restored, and the associated costs with these activities. We are doing studies of how much sediment is behind each of these four dams, what their contaminant levels are, how much would be transported downstream, and what impact these sediments might have on fish communities, as well as humans. We’re doing detailed studies of the economic impacts (I mentioned before) of dam removal, we’ve got changes that would occur in the recreational industry, losses of hydropower, changes in real estate value and tax bases, lots of changes…the last one would be changes to the commercial fisheries. We’re gathering information, as well, on the tribal values of these trust resources, many of which cannot be put in monetary terms. So these are very important.

We are developing computer models of how the fish populations are likely to change if dams are removed and if habitat is improved. In addition to this, we are preparing an Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Impact Report to make sure that dam removal would be done in a way with environmental sensitivity, and to make sure it is the best alternative, and to also make sure we are compliant with all legal requirements.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Lastly, this was specifically designed to be as transparent a process as possible. How can the public go about getting more information and getting more involved in the process??

[Dennis Lynch] Yeah, I think you’ve mentioned that we just launched a website called KlamathRestoration.gov. This site contains a lot of information about the process that we’re undertaking right now to gather the information for the Secretary. But the site’s also going to be the place where we post a lot reports from the studies I just mentioned. It will also have information about public opportunities for input: you mentioned the public scoping meetings that will be coming up in July. The locations, dates, and times for those would be on that website. There is going to be an opportunity somewhere down the road, I don’t have an exact time yet, where we’ll have a public comment on the Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report that we will produce for this process. I really do encourage people to look at the KlamathRestoration.gov if they want to learn more about this process.

[Steven Sobieszczyk] Well, Dennis, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks again for the updates on the recent activities.

[You’re welcome, Thank you for inviting me, I really appreciate it.]

If you have any questions or comments for the Klamath River Basin restoration you can contact them directly on their website at KlamathRestoration.gov.

Although the Oregon Science Podcast is a product of the USGS, the work for the Klamath Basin restoration is being orchestrated at the Department of the Interior level, with the USGS acting as one its members. The story is still unfolding and although follow-up episodes may or may not happen with us here, there will definitely be more products coming out in the near future for the Klamath. Therefore, keep an eye on the KlamathRestoration.gov website for an updated list of available products and for any new information on findings for the Klamath Basin.

Okay, that’s all we have for today’s show. Thanks for listening. If you want to check out any of the links discussed in this episode, check out our show transcripts. You can find them on our website at or.usgs.gov/podcasts. Also, we have some exciting news. For those who don’t know, our USGS offices in Oregon are now on Twitter. So if you feel like you need more frequent, local USGS news and insight, you can find us on Twitter at “USGS_OR.” As always, if you have any questions, comments, or even complaints about the USGS Oregon Science Podcast, please email us at oregonpodcast@usgs.gov. Thank you for listening. To hear more about other research the USGS is doing around the country, pick any one of our other social media outlets at: usgs.gov/socialmedia. There you can listen to other USGS podcasts, as well as find links to USGS on TwitterYouTubeFacebook, and Flicker.

Until next time, I’m Steven Sobieszczyk.

This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.

[Outro Music: Scott Pemberton Trio, Little Bobby Cobalt]