Scary Headlines and Dams

The Septuagenarian Speaks – published September 16, 2020, Siskiyou Daily News

EXTREME DROUGHT!  ROLLING BLACKOUTS!  ALGAE BLOOMS AT IRON GATE AND COPCO!  UNCONTROLLED WILDFIRES!  CLIMATE CHANGE!  COVID-19!  RIOTS AND PROTESTS!  ECONOMIC RECESSION!  SKYROCKETING UNEMPLOYMENT!  LATEST ELECTION POLLS!  SYSTEMIC RACISM!  ETC!  ETC!  So many headlines, so little time.  I don’t have time to obsess over all those headlines, so for today, I will just choose the first five, which by sheer coincidence brings me back to a topic I write about frequently – the proposed removal of four Klamath River dams.  Please forgive me if you are tired of reading about this, but I can’t help writing about it.  Obsessed.  The more I learn about the issue, the more I become convinced that dam removal is a terrible idea.  So, please bear with me.

Let’s start with the “Extreme Drought” headline.  Extreme drought means insufficient water.  That is a no-brainer, right?  Insufficient water means we need more water.  One way to get more water is to store water.  How do you store water?  Well, reservoirs certainly help.  On this subject, a recent article in the Klamath Falls Herald and News caught my attention.  The Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the water in Upper Klamath Lake, announced it was able to increase the release of much needed water to the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Refuges and to farms in the Klamath Project.  According to the article, The Yurok Tribe was frustrated because the Bureau of Reclamation didn’t send the 7,000 acre-feet of water it had originally allocated for their Boat Dance Ceremony downstream on August 30, in violation of treaty obligations and federal court orders.  In the absence of the promised flow from BOR, PacifiCorp stepped in and released the water from the Klamath reservoirs, and the ceremony was still able to occur.  This isn’t necessarily a final solution, as that water will still need to be replaced by flows from further upstream.  But it does illustrate how important it is to keep the reservoirs in place to help regulate and control the flow dynamics of the river, particularly if we face more drought and more temperature extremes in the future.

Regarding the “Rolling Blackouts” headline, another news article that caught my eye was from the Los Angeles Times.  According to the Times story, the State Water Resources Control Board recently “threw a lifeline to four fossil fueled power plants along the Southern California coast, deciding the facilities are still needed to provide reliable electricity even as they contribute to the climate crisis.”  The four facilities were supposed to shut down forever by December 31, 2020, but the vote by the SWRCB granted extensions to their life as a result of rolling blackouts.  The article went on: “Energy regulators are still investigating the causes of the power shortage.  But they said allowing the coastal gas plants to stay open a few more years would help prevent more outages as California continues its transition to cleaner energy sources – an ironic solution given that climate change almost certainly exacerbated the recent heat wave.”  Ironic, to say the least.  The irony goes a long way.  Dam removal proponents want to take out dams that generate clean hydroelectric power?

Now consider the “Algae Blooms” headline, the four dams being slated for demolition are blamed for creating the Klamath River’s poor water quality, when in fact there are many other factors that contribute.  For example, the upriver Keno dam, not listed for demolition, has the worst water quality in the Klamath Basin, including toxic algae.  A major cause of the poor water quality is the agricultural wastewater from the upper basin.  Reasonable minds can differ as to whether the four dams and their reservoirs serve to clean up the water fed from above, but one thing is certain: taking out the dams isn’t going to solve the problem.  Environmentalists argue that taking out the four dams is a positive step toward the solution, but not the biggest step toward addressing the source of the Klamath’s poor water quality.  In my mind, that is an argument against dam removal.  Let’s assume that eons ago before the Europeans began settling the basin and it was occupied only by Native Americans, and before the dams were built, the river’s flow dynamics were better than today (not necessarily a forgone conclusion.  Eye witness accounts of the Klamath River in the early 1800s indicate that Salmon didn’t migrate past Spencer Creek just east of the Copco # 1 dam.  A natural basaltic reef was high enough to prevent Salmon from crossing it except perhaps in the most extreme of high-water times.)  What is gained by taking out the four dams?  The flow dynamics will still be poor, and the anadromous fish will still struggle. Today’s fashionable public sentiment is for all of us white European descendants to apologize for being here in the United States, for our bad acts toward the Native American population, and for bringing slavery with us.  So, we can apologize away, and tear down statues that commemorate our bad acts, but the truth is, we aren’t leaving.  We aren’t going to migrate back to wherever we came from.  The dam removal proponents would have us believe that dam removal will restore the Klamath River to the pristine condition it was in before the European settlers arrived.  It won’t work, unless the descendants of all those European settlers go back to where they came from.  The ranches, farms, industries, and the sheer number of people will remain.  Tearing down a dam isn’t quite the same as tearing down a statue.  Once these dams are gone, as a practical matter, they will never be rebuilt if, afterward, we look at it and say, oops, we made a mistake.  Aren’t the proponents of dam removal the same people that are concerned about climate change, drought, wildfires, and reliance on fossil fuels for energy?  The dams conserve water, create clean energy, and facilitate firefighting.  What am I missing?

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