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Klamath Dam Closures May Save Salmon — and Harm Farmers

In spite of the Pacific Northwest’s reputation for environmental leadership, short-sighted opponents of hydroelectric power struck a blow last week when Oregon-based utility PacifiCorp agreed — under duress — to decommission a series of hydroelectric dams in the Upper Klamath River along the Oregon-California border.

Power from the dams is used to serve electrical load in Oregon and Northern California. Without the dams in operation (the licenses were extended to 2020 when they are to be shut down) PacifiCorp will have to find a way to replace the renewable, emissions-free energy that the dams provided.

Regulators were joined by dam protestors in contending that the quest for new power can be done in a way that does not damage the environment anymore or put too much of a dent in consumers’ pockets. And things are certainly expected to go swimmingly for the salmon populations that the dams threatened.

But the quest for clean replacement power may not be as easy as it has been made to sound, especially given that while the price per unit of the existing hydroelectric power was calculated to include the externality costs associated with the dams’ impact on local fish stock and riverside settlements, the replacement cost did not factor in a realistic cost for its potential harm to the environment in the form of greenhouse gas emissions.

It also did not factor in the cost to consumers of power that may be subject to whatever carbon-capping regime emerges in the US. All of those real world considerations speak nothing to the momentum hit that a shift to renewable energy takes — in public perception and political will — from this kind of backward step.

Mitigation of the dams’ local impacts would have been costly and might not have been 100 percent effective. But instead of engaging in a discussion about ways to remediate the local impact of hydroelectric dams while still allowing for the capture of clean, greenhouse gas-free power, local opponents went nuclear.

PacificCorp and its electric customers are not the only parties exposed to risks from the move. Downstream, Northern California farmers whose crops are irrigated by water that is controlled by operation of the dams are concerned. They won a concession in the decommissioning agreement that is supposed to ensure the continued irrigation of their land, but their confidence is fragile.

Meanwhile, while the loss of the power generated by the Klamath dams may be a drop in the bucket in the larger climate change picture, it is a part of that aggregate of reliable, renewable capacity that is no longer online. Backwards steps on that figure are a threat to our planet.

[photo credit: Flickr]