In Our View: Dam Removal Hits a Wall

Feds want to demolish Klamath River dams, but political forces block the way

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Extremist views about hydroelectric dams -- as with many other issues -- often stray from basic realities.It's unrealistic to advocate that all power-generating dams are evil and therefore must be destroyed. Modern needs and our energy-driven economy are too strong for that. And besides, dams churn out relatively inexpensive energy from the renewable source of water.

By the same token, it's equally unrealistic to argue that dams are problem-free and that no dam should be removed. Many are obsolete and too expensive to maintain or upgrade.

So a proper balance must be struck.

Another example of that proper balance occurred last week when the U.S. Department of Interior recommended the removal of all four aging hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and Northern California. The feds say struggling wild salmon runs need help, and $1 billion should be spent on environmental restoration on the Klamath.

This recommendation comes as good news for people who have a properly balanced view of dams. And it's part of a trend in the Northwest, where the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River (about 65 miles east of Vancouver) was breached in October 2011. In 2007 and closer to Clark County, the Marmot Dam on the Sandy River east of Portland was removed in 2007. To the north on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, the Elwha Dam has been removed, and work continues on demolition of the massive, 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam.

Unfortunately, a properly balanced view of this issue also reveals there is little hope any work will begin soon on the Klamath River. Blame the usual nemesis: Congress. Even with the Interior Department's recommendation, legislation authorizing removal of the Klamath dams is going nowhere.

And political friction at the local level in Southern Oregon indicates a continued stalemate. According to an Associated Press story, newly elected conservatives on the Klamath County Board of Commissioners have voted to leave the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. That pact is important because it resolves differences between many competing forces — Indian tribes, salmon fishing enthusiasts and environmentalists — in the Klamath River area.

Doubly disappointing is the continued cold shoulder given to the recommendations of Ken Salazar, who recently resigned as Interior secretary. In one of his last acts, Salazar again asked Congress to expedite removal of the four Klamath dams. "Once again, the communities of the Klamath Basin are facing a potentially difficult water year under a status quo that everyone agrees is broken," Salazar said. "We need a comprehensive solution addressing all the needs of the Klamath Basin, including fisheries, agriculture, (wildlife) refuges and power."

Thus we see emerging a third unreasonable scenario. In addition to the polarizing forces of demonizing dams or defending them unendingly, there is the irrational willingness to cling to a status quo that no one likes.

Some day, we hope the Klamath River will see the same dam-removal progress that is being seen elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.