Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Rural responses to corporate utility disasters (Part II): Dam removal lessons from the Klamath

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the August 10 PG&E canal failure that sent millions of pounds of sediment into Butte Creek, a Sacramento River tributary, threatening the spring-run chinook and overall ecosystem health. (You can read my first post about the incident and initial community response here.) I left off wondering how rural community members might reclaim land and power (of both the political and electric varieties) from PG&E and I decided to go looking for ideas based on strategies already employed by rural communities in other places.

Big, investor-owned utilities overlooking rural people and land is nothing new. In the 1930s, while most cities and towns had been electrified, only 10 percent of rural America had been. Utility companies hesitated to extend services to sparsely populated places because they doubted they’d receive a return on investment. More recently, rural California communities have borne the brunt of utility-caused wildfires and rolling blackouts. Utility-owned dams and diversions have caused massive fish kills and other ecosystem impacts in the places rural people call home.

The Butte Creek Canyon community is no exception; the 2018 Camp Fire swept through much of the canyon, diversions and low water flow caused a tragic 2021 fish kill, and now, the 2023 canal breach has further damaged the ecosystem and threatened this year’s salmon. The area has also suffered a number of blackouts; the ones from 2017-19 are documented on this interactive map.

When I began researching how other communities have responded to big utility oversights, I thought perhaps I’d find a blueprint from another rural community that could apply to Butte Creek Canyon. Though I didn’t find anyone who had dealt with the exact combination of dam removal and local energy control (if you know of any, please let me know in the comments), I did find two projects that could serve as inspiration to canyon residents: the Klamath dam removal project and the Blue Lake Rancheria low-carbon microgrid project.

Based on what I’ve learned so far about energy, dams and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), I'll explore how adapting strategies from these projects could benefit the Butte Creek Canyon community over my next two posts.

Let’s begin with the Klamath dam removal project. For a more detailed history and background of the Klamath dams and subsequent removal campaign, you can check out this timeline, listen to this episode of Future Ecologies and read this past blog post. In brief, four dams, Copco 1, Copco 2, Big Bend and Iron Gate were constructed along the Klamath River between 1918 and 1962. The dams prevent(ed) salmon from reaching the Klamath’s upper waters, where they historically spawned. In 2002, diversions for irrigation during a drought year resulted in low water flows and the death of as many as 68,000 salmon. Though the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath tribes opposed the dams since they were constructed, the historic fish kill was the catalyst for a 20-year campaign to remove the dams.

The first and smallest dam, Copco 2, was removed this summer. The remaining three are slated to come down by the end of 2024, according to this CalTrout article. The removal of these four dams constitutes the largest dam removal in U.S. history, so how did it happen? As it turns out, via a corporation.

After years of negotiating and coalition-building, as well as political setbacks, the tribes and other stakeholders formed a not-for-profit corporation, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), to obtain the dam licenses and oversee removal. PacifiCorp, the utility that owned the dams, had acknowledged that the dams were no longer economical but was reticent to take on the liabilities of dam removal. KRRC negotiated a license transfer agreement and, with FERC approval, took ownership of the dams in 2021. To make the transfer possible, the states of California and Oregon agreed to serve as co-licensees.

The story of the Butte Creek Canyon dams has many parallels to the Klamath River, albeit on a smaller scale. Both are stories of Indigenous people, salmon, old dams, and corporate utility neglect. Butte Creek sits on the ancestral homelands of the Mechoopda people. Every spring, the river and its people welcome one of the last wild populations of Central Valley spring-run chinook salmon, but the salmon have been threatened by a hydroelectric project. And, like PacifiCorp did for the Klamath dams, PG&E has conceded that its DeSabla-Centerville hydroelectric project, of which the failed canal and Centerville Dam are a part of, doesn’t make economical sense. Yet it has not seriously pursued decommissioning and removing the project.

PG&E did attempt to withdraw from the project in 2017, but the FERC denied permission to do so until a notice period had been held to allow the public an opportunity to express interest in acquiring the license. PG&E then continued to apply for annual licenses to operate the project. The utility has recently applied to transfer the project to its subsidiary, Pacific Generation, according to an action alert from advocacy group Friends of Butte Creek.

Friends of Butte Creek is encouraging advocates to write to the FERC, urging them to disallow the transfer and require PG&E decommission the project and remove the Centerville dam, or to alternatively require Pacific Generation to do so after a transfer. I agree that PG&E should absolutely take responsibility for its actions and remove the outdated and harmful infrastructure on its own.

However, if that effort fails, I wonder if a not-for-profit corporation created by canyon residents, tribal members and conservation groups like CalTrout might succeed in an endeavor similar to the KRRC. By creating a non-profit to obtain the hydroelectric project licenses and remove the harmful infrastructure, community stakeholders could forge coalitions, protect the environment, return agency to rural communities and save the Butte Creek salmon.

In my next post of the series, I’ll write about how an entity like this could also provide safer, more reliable energy, taking cues from municipal power districts and tribal microgrid projects.


Thalia Taylor said...

I actually think that a corporation is a really viable avenue for exploration!

For a nonprofit, doing more with less is the name of the game. While thrift is a mitzvah, it makes it difficult to attract and retain talented, experienced employees. It also doesn't decrease the degree to which an organization is beholden to outside forces. Granting agencies and foundations required detailed reporting on project progress and internal finances, just like shareholders. When I worked in nonprofit, our finance guy used to say that a nonprofit is just a company with a different tax status.

Chris Datu said...

I really like your consideration of locals and conservation groups banding together to take on this endeavor! I think this puts a lot of power in the hands of the members, though Thalia does raise important points about the realities of a non-profit. The complexities of such an organization likely require input from someone with some degree of legal training or is dependent on an incredible individual willing to take this on in their free time. In my own experience, some non-profit mutual water companies in rural areas are run by volunteers with the best intentions but unable to stay up to date with all such an entity demands. There are some steep barriers to a very powerful solution here, which can bring a lot of control back to the local residents and tribe members. It would be amazing to see these communities mobilize and their collective efforts take shape.