Klamath Dam Demolition Procures Final Approval
Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its final approval to remove four dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon, allowing what will be the largest dam removal project in the nation to move forward.
The $500 million demolition is part of a settlement agreement nearly 15 years in the making by the states, national tribes and utility companies to remove the dams and address fish populations and river health.
“This enormous step forward will make historic progress in revitalizing the Klamath River, which is vital to the sustainability of all communities in the Klamath Basin. Beyond ecological restoration, this is also an act of restorative justice. Since time immemorial, the Indigenous peoples of the Klamath Basin have preserved the lands, waters, fish, and wildlife of this treasured region — and this project will not only improve its water and fish habitat, but also boost our economy,” said Oregon Governor Kate Brown.
“I am grateful for the hard work and perseverance of the region’s tribes, and the partnership of California, who have come together for many years to make this possible.”
The purpose of the removal of the hydroelectric dams is to allow the body of water to flow freely with fish passages that are also planned to be restored. As reported by Engineering News-Record, the project is a record-size venture in the United States, adding that nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corp. spokesperson Matt Cox called the dam removal the largest in the country’s history.
The J.C. Boyle dam, located in Oregon, and dams Copco I, Copco II and Iron Gate, located in California, were all built between 1918 and 1962. Collectively, the dams can generate up to 43 MW of hydroelectric power.
Kiewit Infrastructure West won the contract over Granite Construction and Barnard Construction at the end of April 2019, and was chosen using a stepped design-build plan—one that implements a selection process based on working toward a design/contract price.
Design and permitting support, among other responsibilities, are part of the first phase of work, to be followed by final design and construction, as well as land restoration in the second phase. Moving forward, the FERC needs to see that the KRRC has the capacity to do the work by submitting plans to the federal agency. Following that, FERC must approve transferring the dam’s license from utility owner PacifiCorp to the KRRC.
The saga of the dam removal dates back to 2004, when PacifiCorp wanted to relicense the dams before transferring ownership. A 2016 utility agreement with regulators and stakeholders from both states regarding environmental conditions prompted the dam removal.
In August 2019, according to a filing with FERC, Klamath River Renewal Corp. updated the cost and the timeline for the removal of the four hydroelectric dams. The 1,333-page report indicated that the cost for the project is just under $434 million (previously estimated to cost $400 million) and, at the time, was slated to occur by 2022. However, Kiewit Infrastructure West was still working to announce a Guaranteed Maximum Price by January 2020.
Before the project could officially move forward, regulators needed to consider whether the dams’ operating license could be transferred from PacifiCorp to KRRC. Prior to the possible transfer however, the KRRC had to prove to an independent board of consultants—made up of six members appointed by the federal government—that it had proper money arrangements, insurance and contingency for its proposal.
Mark Bransom, KRRC Executive Director, stated that he was confident the KRRC had the proper funding for the job. Regarding an estimate from that time, $434 million showed to be well within the $450 million budget, which included $62 million slated for unanticipated costs and $16 million left over in cash reserves.
At the time, funding for the removal project was received primarily from PacifiCorp ratepayers, contributing $200 million, about another $250 million from California Proposition 1 and a $7.5 billion statewide water bond that was passed in 2014.
KRRC hired Resource Environmental Solutions LLC for environmental mitigation, and proposed a local impact mitigation fund so any potential damages can be filed through claims.
In July 2021, FERC approved the transfer of the Lower Klamath Project License from PacifiCorp to KRRC and the states of Oregon and California. The application was originally filed in 2016 as a joint application between the two organizations.
The approval allowed for KRRC to lead the effort to remove the four Klamath hydroelectric dams as the “dam removal entity” as called for the in 2010 Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement.
“Today’s order confirms that the Renewal Corporation has the ability, financially and otherwise, to undertake dam removal, and with the states, as co-licensees, the necessary legal and technical expertise required for such a huge undertaking,” wrote FERC in its release at the time. “The surrender application is still pending before the Commission and is awaiting further environmental review as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Commission will continue to engage with all parties and stakeholders to ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate in the surrender proceeding.”
“The news from FERC is very positive and moves us forward on the long path to dam removal,” said Bransom. “We must also secure FERC’s approval of our Surrender Application, but today’s decision by the Commissioners certainly boosts our optimism about the road ahead.”
According to KRRC, the Surrender Application includes the group’s detailed plan for facilities removal and restoration of the project footprint.
In February this year, the Department of the Interior announced that it had concluded a series of engagement sessions focused on addressing the drought crisis in the Klamath Basin.
As part of the law, the Klamath Basin ecosystem restoration will receive a $162 million investment, as an opportunity to support water resilience and infrastructure. These discussions covered path issues for the basin, dam removal, Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement implementation, hydrology issues, and project and National Wildlife Refuge water supply, as well as aquatic habitat, water quality priorities and water supply reliability.
According to the DOI, as part of coordination with Tribes on restoration activities established by the bipartisan infrastructure law, consultations were held with six Tribes within the basin. Following these virtual meetings, the department hosted several interactive meetings with federal and state officials, Tribes and local stakeholders.
In March, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding the Klamath River Renewal project, including the surrender, decommissioning and removal of project works of the Lower Klamath Hydroelectric Project.
According to the release, FERC recommended approval of the KRRC’s License Surrender application, with the conclusion that “environmental and public benefits of the proposed action, with additional staff recommendations, would exceed those of the no-action alternative (status quo).”
“No later than late spring of 2023 there will begin six to seven months of construction work to position for removal of the dams. The corporation is doing everything to complete the process,” said Bransom at the time.
Reports stated that the Iron Gate Dam will be the first of the four dams to be removed.
The following month, the U.S. Interior Department and FERC had given their support for the removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California.
The DOI reviewed the FERC’s draft of the report and said it was “thorough and robust,” adding “carefully considers the potential environmental effects of [the] proposed action.” Additionally, the department said it would approve the removal with “moderate modifications.”
At the end of August, FERC released its final environmental impact statement regarding the Klamath River Renewal Project. The FERC also recommended approving the surrender of the dam license, as well as decommissioning and removing the dams with modifications and mandatory conditions.
The final ruling, issued by FERC on Nov. 17, approved the surrender of the Lower Klamath Project license and the proposed removal of the four aging structures, marking the final major hurdle for what is anticipated to be the largest dam removal project in United States history.
The approval of the dam removal plan provides the final ruling from the federal regulator needed for parties to fully implement the Amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement as signed in 2016.
“Some people might ask in this time of great need for zero emissions, 'Why are we removing the dams?' First, we have to understand this doesn't happen every day ... a lot of these projects were licensed a number of years back when there wasn't as much focus on environmental issues,” said FERC Chairman Richard Glick. “Some of these projects have a significant impact on the environment and a significant impact on fish.”
According to PacifiCorp’s release, parties led by the KRRC will take several pre-construction steps during 2023 to lay the groundwork for the project, following the formal acceptance of the license transfer by the states and KRRC. The approval sets a 30-day timeline for the states and KRRC to approve the transfer, but Bransom anticipates that this will only take a couple weeks.
“Today’s action culminates more than a decade of work to revitalize the Klamath River and its vital role in the tribal communities, cultures and livelihoods sustained by it. California is grateful for the partnership of Oregon, the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, Berkshire Hathaway and the many other stakeholders who came together to make this transformative effort a reality for the generations to come,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom.
The Los Angeles Times reports that funding for the project will primarily come from California’s Proposition 1 water bond and from PacifiCorp. Bransom said it would cost more for the company to upgrade the facilities to today’s standards than to enter into the agreement.
PacifiCorp will reportedly continue to operate the dams until the demolition begins. However, company spokesman Bob Gravely told reporters that while the dams have a capacity of 163 megawatts, they only typically run about half that amount due in part to low river levels. They also represent less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s overall generation, noting it won’t be difficult to replace through renewables and other sources.
According to reports, the approval has not been met without opposition, with some residents expressing concerns over property values, flooding and liability problems. Some critics also believe that the dam removal won't be enough to save the salmon because of changing ocean conditions the fish encounter before the return to their natal river.
PacifiCorp reports that the Copco No. 2 dam will be removed as soon as summer 2023 under the approved plan, with the removal of the three remaining dams-- J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1 and Iron Gate—planned for the following year.
“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” said Yurok Chairman Joseph James. “The people have earned this victory and with it, we carry on our sacred duty to the fish that have sustained our people since the beginning of time.”