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If dams are removed, will there be water for firefighting? KRRC says yes, with new plan

Skye Kinkade
Siskiyou Daily News

A plan to ensure there will be adequate water with which to fight wildfires if four Klamath dams are removed was unveiled Friday by the Klamath River Renewal Corporation.

According to a KRRC press release, California and Oregon fire protection agencies have “signaled support” for the draft plan and the organization plans to submit it to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission late next month, along with “several other management documents.”

One of the main arguments for keeping the dams is that firefighters use water from the dam’s resultant reservoirs to fight fires.

KRRC admits in their press release that the reservoirs have served as a water source for firefighting agencies and also as “a de facto fuel break” for wildfires. 

Iron Gate Reservoir in Siskiyou County would cease to exist if the Klamath Dam Project is successful.

To compensate for this loss if dams are removed, KRRC’s fire plan calls for new camera-based early fire monitoring that isn’t currently available in the area.

“The draft fire plan thoroughly details KRRC’s efforts to offset any loss of water available for firefighting purposes related to dam removal,” the release states.

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The nonprofit KRRC was formed in 2016 to take ownership of four PacifiCorp-owned hydroelectric dams – J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1 and 2, and Iron Gate. Once that process is complete, the organization plans to remove the dams and restore the area to improve water quality and the health of the fishery. 

Many Siskiyou County residents staunchly oppose the plan, asserting that dam removal will not result in a healthier fishery and would instead cause a property values to plummet.

The draft plan includes a system of remote cameras that will allow pinpointing of fire start locations as well as monitoring of fires; helicopter water drafting locations from the Klamath River suitable for helicopter access; continued operation of a gravity-fed hydrant system; a system of dry hydrants and revamped boat launches appropriate for fire engine access and drafting; and numerous portable dip tanks.   

The Copco I Dam on the Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif.

A project stalled, then revived

The active push to remove the dams has been ongoing for more than a decade. But in July of 2020, plans hit a snag when U.S. regulators questioned whether KRRC could adequately respond to cost overruns or accidents in what would be the   largest dam demolition in U.S. history. FERC declined to allow PacifiCorp to wash its hands of all responsibility for the dams, as was the original plan and the intent for creating KRRC.

In November, however, dam removal proponents forged a new plan which makes Oregon and California equal partners in the demolition with KRRC. It also added $45 million to the project’s $450 million budget – with both states and PacifiCorp each providing a third of the additional funds. 

This map indicates the four dams that are slated for removal removal as part of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, although a ruling on July 16, 2020 specifies that transfer of ownership to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation will  only be approved if PacifiCorp remains a co-licensee.

If FERC approves the deal, PacifiCorp could then walk away from the aging dams that are more of an albatross than a profit-generator. Oregon, California and KRRC would jointly take over the hydroelectric license from PacifiCorp while KRRC oversees the work.

Those who want the dams out say they block hundreds of miles of potential fish habitat and spawning grounds for threatened Coho salmon and spring chinook salmon.

PacifiCorp has been operating the dams under an extension of its expired hydroelectric license for years. The license was originally granted before modern environmental laws and renewing it would mean costly renovations to install fish ladders at Iron Gate. The utility has said energy generated by the dams no longer makes up a significant part of its portfolio.

More than 1,720 dams have been dismantled around the U.S. since 2012, according to American Rivers, and 26 states undertook dam removal projects in 2019 alone. The Klamath River project would be the largest such project by far if it proceeds.

What’s in the fire plan

In a letter to FERC regarding the plan, CAL FIRE noted the agency believes the system of actions proposed in the fire plan are “adequate to manage construction-related fire risks, comply with all applicable laws, and will not adversely affect CAL FIRE’s ability to provide an adequate and effective firefighting capability in Siskiyou County and beyond.” 

The entire CAL FIRE letter can be viewed here.  

“These measures are adequate to manage construction-related fire risks, comply with all applicable laws, and cooperate with local and regional fire agencies to help manage long-term wildfire risk in the Klamath River Basin,” wrote Oregon Department of Forestry’s Klamath Protection Unit Forester Randall Baley and Lee Winslow, Medford Protection Unit Forester in a letter to FERC. 

KRRC said it set out to meet two key objectives in developing its fire plan. 

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The Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River outside Hornbrook, Calif.

“The first was to ensure that dam removal will not cause a net reduction in firefighting resources. The second was to ensure that both during and after demolition of the dams, the fire ignition risk that currently exists in the region will not increase,” according to the release.

“KRRC shares the community’s concerns about the danger posed by wildfire,” said Mark Bransom, KRRC Chief Executive Officer. “We know the reservoirs slated for removal have been used by firefighters in the past, and we understand the public safety implications of dam removal. This is why we have worked closely with firefighting agencies to develop a plan and provide resources that will leave local communities in a strong position to deal with the wildfire threats that are an ongoing part of life in the rural west.”  

The JC Boyle dam is one of four Klamath dams that is slated for removal as part of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, although a ruling on July 16, 2020 specifies that transfer of ownership to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation will  only be approved if PacifiCorp remains a co-licensee.

KRRC provided a list of firefighting resources the plan calls for:

  • Installation of a “Monitored Detection System,” described as state-of-the-art camera technology which will improve early fire monitoring capabilities using high-definition imagery and video transmitted from cameras strategically placed at fire lookouts, according to KRRC. The system is monitored by fire personnel at a detection center. Use of this technology elsewhere has already proven to increase early detection and reduce response times by firefighters. 

  • Installation of five permanent dry hydrants. Dry hydrants provide a simple and reliable water supply for ground-based firefighting crews to fill fire engines and water tenders and will be located at or near road crossings of large tributaries or boat launch locations to provide additional water sources. 

  • Staging of self-supporting tanks. These tanks will supplement aerial and ground-based water supplies, said KRRC. They hold up to 5,000 gallons of water and could be stored, erected, and filled rapidly for initial attack activities.
  • Identification of aerial river access points in the former reservoirs (two per reservoir) that meet specific suitability performance criteria to be used by Type 1 helicopters with snorkels.

“Although the reservoirs will no longer be available to firefighting aircraft, the river itself will provide multiple opportunities for firefighting helicopters,” KRRC noted.

The Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus contributed to this report.

Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation Siskiyou County resident and has lived in Mount Shasta and Weed her entire life.