Earlier this week, Governor Gavin Newsom wrote directly to billionaire investor Warren Buffett in an attempt to gain his support for removing four dams in Northern California that Buffet’s company owns.
The possible destruction of the Klamath dam system in Northern California
The dams are part of the Klamath project, a series of seven dams built in the 1910’s and 1920’s in the Klamath Basin to bring electricity and agricultural water mitigation for Southern Oregon and Northern California. However, in recent years, concerns over the dams effect on the wildlife and fishing industry have been raised, especially regarding many species of fish facing extinction due to the effects of the dams.
In 2018, plans were released to destroy the dam system. However, those plans ended in 2019 due to data errors and issues over who owns the dams themselves. The Bureau of Reclamation soon put out a study on the dams effects through 2024, leading to California to try again to destroy the dams.
However the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee ended those plans once again in June, ruling that PacificCorp, an Oregon utility company owned by Buffett’s Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway, would have to transfer it’s hydroelectric license and co-licensee with the Klamath River Renewal Corp, as well as pay $250 million towards getting out of the demolition project to avoid any liabilities around the demolition.
Governor Newsom’s Wednesday appeal implored Buffett to back the demolition project to save the salmon populations that many Native American tribes in the area rely on.
“The river is sick, and the Klamath Basin tribes are suffering,” said Newsom in his letter. “The Klamath dam removals are a shining example of what we can accomplish when we act according to our values.”
Many tribes also issued a join letter with Governor Newsom in support of the dams destruction.
Several tribes as well as fishing and conservation groups issued a joint statement urging Buffett’s support.
“Walking away from the agreement will put PacificCorp ratepayers on the hook for all the risks and liabilities associated with fish kills, toxic algae blooms, lawsuits, and violations of tribal rights,” said the statement from the tribes. “We urge Warren Buffett and PacificCorp to end the delays and move the dam removal process forward immediately.”
Dangers and issues of removing the Klamath dams
While the dams are currently licensed, hundreds of millions of dollars of upgrades to the dams will be needed for renewal, most notably to the fish ladders which allow fish to move freely around the dams. As the removal project is estimated to cost $450 million, with PacificCorp most likely paying $250 million to not be liable for any subsequent damages during removal, the question of money has canceled each argument out. For people wishing to keep the dams, the concerns is over the welfare of flood control, agricultural needs, and electricity generation.
“The Klamath dams are amazingly important up North,” explained dam engineer Kyle Richardson, who studied the dams for his Masters dissertation. “Protecting endangered species are important, but no one has really thought about what dam removal can bring. Without any follow up flood control systems, the area would be at risk. Electricity would have to come from elsewhere, and it wouldn’t be solar or wind most likely. That means fossil fuels and gas, and that means pollution from power plants.”
“But it would be especially disastrous for the many farmers in California and Oregon. We’ve seen what dam changes did to the farmers in the Central Valley. Getting rid of the dams and reservoirs would just get rid of that faucet entirely, having them rely on the natural ebbs and flows largely, and that’s reckless.”
“There is much more danger in tearing down the dams than keeping them up. It’s not even close.”
As of Friday, Buffett has not given any indication that he would allow the dams to be destroyed. However, Pacific Power, a PacificCorp subsidiary, noted that they wanted a balanced solution.
“We share your concerns about social and environmental progress and remain committed to solving these deeply rooted cultural and community impacts,” said Pacific Power on Thursday.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Committee also shared concerns that the Klamath River Renewal Corp in charge of the demolition has had no dam removal experience before, and could escalate costs that taxpayers may have to cover.
“Costs could escalate beyond the level anticipated and unexpected technical issues could arise. Were the Renewal Corp. to be the sole licensee, it might ultimately be faced with matters that it is not equipped to handle,” noted the federal agency.
Should the project proceed, the dam removal would follow the 2016 agreement to switch over dam licenses and begin demolition. Taxpayers would pay for $250 million of the $450 million project, with funds coming out of a 2014 water bond. If successful, it would be the largest dam removal in American history.
Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are expected to come to a decision soon on the removals.