HomePilots & Prototypes
Imagining the Klamath Dams Removal: A Case Study in Using Civic Voice to Bridge the Gap between Reality and Policy (Pt. 1)
June 2, 2021
Written by
Text LinkText Link

This article is written to imagine a future in which an established and robust Civic Voice Platform, a tool for connecting local congressional districts to federal legislative lawmaking, is actively providing a streamlined and accessible method for engaging with community data. It’s February 2022.

Right now, the largest and most expensive dam removal in the U.S. is being negotiated in Northern California, in the Klamath River Basin. While four dams are slated for removal as early as 2022, negotiations between the utility PacifiCorp, the states of California and Oregon, and the Yurok and Karuk Tribes are still underway and are contentious.

The removal was initially agreed upon in February 2010 when American River Staff and Richard Roos-Collins of the Natural Heritage Institute signed two settlement agreements with PacifiCorp and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in Salem, Oregon. They agreed to remove the dams, restore the Klamath and help revive the salmon population. However, eleven years later, the deal is precarious, with the potential to fall apart.

By July 2020, the Yurok and Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) already had a deal worked out with PacifiCorp, but then the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decided to keep PacifiCorp on as a co-license holder rather than completely transfer liability to the KRRC (Sierra Club). In a sticking point in earlier rounds of bargaining, PacifiCorp’s desired to avoid any financial risk, so this resulted in the re-opening of negotiations. After almost daily negotiations between July and November 2020, the parties came to a new agreement. PacifiCorp will remain a license holder until FERC issues a formal order to surrender the license and until the dams begin to be removed, at which point the KRRC, California, and Oregon will take on the license in equal parts. The change will give the KRRC and the states a chance to look over FERC’s new environmental orders before finalizing the agreement.  

In November 2020, the KRRC released the Definite Decommissioning Plan (DDP) for the Lower Klamath Project to the FERC. This is a comprehensive plan to physically remove J.C. Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate dams to achieve a free-flowing condition and volitional fish passage, site remediation and restoration, and avoidance or minimization of adverse downstream impacts.

Forty minutes after the meeting ends, Mila Owens AirDrops the recorded transcription from her phone to her laptop. Finishing her working day as Representative Jared Huffman’s Outreach Director, she logs in to the Civic Voice Platform and navigates to the landing page for Klamath River Dam Removal.

She creates a new event - “KRRC’s Next Steps: Renewable Energy and Increasing Salmon Uptake” - and enters the required details: date and time (February 12, 2022), location (Klamath, California), organizer (Jared Huffman’s office), type of event (listening tour stop), and the types of information being collected and attached (a transcript, summarized notes, and a video recording).

She tags the event with the fitting identifiers: dam removal, salmon, Tribal knowledge, Yurok, Karuk, California, Klamath River, Oregon, river restoration, renewable energy, utility reform, listening tour, community project funding, hydroelectric.

The meeting she is documenting was the fourth in a series of Listening Tour events that have been held since Summer 2020 with the goal of continuing the momentum of the negotiations and providing an informal citizen oversight mechanism for Pacficorp and KRRC’s management of the removal. The goal of this specific meeting was to brainstorm an application for community project funding, the federal earmark mechanism. The dams are currently responsible for 8% of the region’s electricity generation, and the community, along with the district government would ideally like this generation to be replaced with 15 GW/h worth of solar and wind installations, with increased funding incentives from the federal government. Determining the first of these installations requires myriad stakeholder input from prospective renewable energy companies, PacifiCorps, and community members.

Mila felt confident about the listening event’s utility in the conversation and the application process, with Huffman leading the discussion and setting the goals for the next meeting in order to meet the community project funding’s subcommittee deadline in a few months. The usual worries arose: increased cost for utility customers, the intermittent nature of renewable energy from wind and solar, and the pervasive nature of NIMBY arguments, especially in a region whose economic engine runs on its natural beauty and tourism that stems from it.

Sophie Lang comes home late from Parent-Teacher Conferences at Eureka High School, she is the teacher that has diplomatically editorialized each of her students. It’s not unenjoyable, but it is late, and this lateness caused her to miss the Listening Tour meeting hosted by her District Rep, Jared Huffman. She was hoping to make the half-hour-long drive up to understand more about the Klamath River dam removals, largely how it would affect her electricity costs. She owns her small home, but a bill is a bill, and an increase in a vital bill is something to be avoided.

She had heard from another 10th-grade teacher that the gist of the meeting could be found online afterward, and she decided to investigate while absentmindedly snacking at some microwave revived pizza. Her colleague had called it the Civic Voice Platform, a place where this kind of public discourse might be recorded, so she googled this phrase, along with “Klamath dam removal.” The meeting notes appeared at the top of the search and she was interested in the new possibility of renewable energy, thinking about the mammoth wind turbines she used to see on her drives on Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco when she was young. Sophie could imagine them on the hills behind her local supermarket. It was a refreshing thought.

Her worries about the potential cost increases were somewhat addressed though not abated when the utility spoke about their desire to keep costs from trickling down to the consumer, and how the removal would, in the end, save money for the utility and the state. This boded well for her fiscally conservative tendencies, and a job-creating project for her community was reassuring.

As a staff writer for the High Country News, Andrew Figueroa had been following the Klamath Dam Removals since the first protests in Southern Oregon in the early 2000s. Tonight, he is working on writing an update on the negotiations and proceedings from his office in Portland, and clicks on the bookmarked page of one of the more reliable tools for understanding citizen-government interaction, the Civic Voice Platform. He found out about this tool in its relative nascency, and since has reveled in its increasing utility for his writing.

With Klamath, the contentions between farmers, Tribes, and the utility make up a story that has twisted in unsuspecting ways over the past decade, influenced by climate change in ways unimaginable. In the past few years, the Sierra Nevada snowpack has dwindled down to almost nothing, with 4% of normal on April 1, 2021, the date when California’s snowpack is usually the deepest and has the highest snow water equivalent — the depth of water that would result if the snow melted upon falling (San Francisco Chronicle). The remaining snowpack now gets sucked into the dry soil and into the atmosphere instead of making it as runoff. As the temperature continues to increase, the water flow and volume is lessened, thus the river water is warmer, a problem for farmers, salmon, all.

The Civic Voice Platform allows him to attach data to this narrative and track data over time, providing a depth that disjointed records across old federal and state websites could not and did not attempt to. He pulled an especially telling quote from an older conservation scientist: “The removal symbolizes a movement forward with the knowledge that has been known for so long. It’s a reckoning with the future with a nod to the past. It’s taking a page from the oldest book on how to engage with our natural world while making space for our built environment.” He thinks about how rare it is for him to be able to pull something that beautiful alongside a quantitative understanding of the funding needed.

The dams on the Klamath River did what dams do - they split the river into multiple pieces, stopping the constant movement of water, wildlife, nutrients, and sediment. They have been one of the catalysts for the drop in salmon numbers - in 2002, the Iron Gate dam was determined to be a huge factor in the death of nearly 70,000 adult salmon. This 2002 major loss of juvenile salmon productivity later resulted in widespread and costly in-river and ocean salmon fisheries closures. Beyond acute incidents like this, dams create inhospitable conditions for salmon runs, because without flowing sediment, the riverbeds below the dams are mostly only large rocks, ideal for bristle worms, which are the secondary host for C. Shasta, a parasite to which juvenile chinook salmon have proven particularly vulnerable. This parasite wreaks havoc on the juvenile salmon, since they usually stop to spawn in overcrowded regions just below the dam.

Dams deny salmon access to their natural breeding grounds, and this has wreaked havoc on population numbers: the spring-run Chinook salmon, which historically numbered in the hundreds of thousands, has almost entirely been wiped out. In 2019, the run consisted of fewer than 700 fish (BBC).

The reservoirs behind the dams are also responsible for a significant build-up of toxic algae – which thrives in warm, nutrient-rich stagnant water. In sufficient quantities, it becomes harmful to human health. In the autumn, water containing toxic algae is released and sent downstream towards the Klamath’s mouth where the Yurok reservation is.

The Yurok and Karuk tribes have led protests against the disturbance the dams cause since the early 2000s, with the support of local commercial fishermen and conservation groups. In 2018, both Tribal and non-Tribal activists (fishermen, environmentalists) participated in a Day of Action Against PacifiCorp, hanging a large banner over a Portland interstate reading “Warren Buffett Kills Salmon, Jobs and Communities.” Two hundred people then marched from Holladay Park to a PacifiCorp press conference and occupied the area in front of PacifiCorp headquarters, effectively shutting down the entrance. In 2008, Yurok and Karuk tribal members and fishermen protested in front of the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, attended by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. PacifiCorp is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway EnergyThe campaign confronted Buffett personally by going after his pillars of support in the form of shareholders and the media. The demonstrations were led by Yurok schoolteacher Georgianna Myers and Chook Chook Hillman, handing out leaflets to shareholders. Although Buffett declined to engage with protesters, the demonstration made the dam the meeting’s most discussed issue.

The direct action spurred on the utility’s decision to remove the dams and the Tribes see their continual involvement as essential in the current moves to install renewable energy and increase the viability of the salmon population. The district government is working to incorporate indigenous voices in this process, though after centuries of epistemic oppression, the Tribes are vigilant in ensuring that their knowledge is valued and utilized.

Driving home after the meeting, Joshua Wright felt a twinge of the same hope they felt when they brokered the original deal, though riddled with some doubts. His Tribe, the Yurok people, have been in support of increasing renewable energy for the past decade, this is not new for them. The 28 kW solar project installed in late 2019 was still up and running as a part of the Yurok Strategic Energy Action Plan, which outlines further goals of a Tribal utility, energy efficiency, getting grid access to 100% of families, and renewable energy expansion.

The tribe’s conversations on the Strategic Energy Plan have been documented thus far on the Civic Voice Platform, a tool he introduced to his community a couple of years ago. Joshua is a natural archivist, wanting the complete set of all things, interested in documenting it all. He is unsure if this is something inherent to him or something learned, but the ability to ensure that a Yurok perspective is given is important to him, and the Civic Voice Platform allows for that in a unique way. A way that is easier than officially submitting something in a public record, and more steadfast than just speaking at a listening tour or Town Hall, it feels more permanent but workable. He can see that it changes, updates and is utilized.

He won’t claim to be the mouthpiece of his community, but he is a millennial, privileged with the technological know-how that comes with that generational territory. He takes it upon himself to underscore the Yurok perspective from the meeting tonight, logging in to find that Huffman’s staff have already created an event. Within this event page, he navigates to the Add Tribal Input panel and uploads a Word document that includes his understanding of how the proceedings are going, what concerns he has heard from the Yurok Tribal Council most recently, and relevant goals from their Strategic Energy Plan. He is able to define the privacy and access settings, tagging this particular document as “open.”

Along with additional privacy settings, Tribal input (including indigenous knowledge) is weighted differently within this system. There is a particular side panel within each event that ensures that if added, Tribal documentation is seen first when using the interface. This has spurred Joshua’s use, appreciating that as a member of a sovereign Tribal nation, his and his Tribe’s understanding of the land, its resources must be prioritized in any lawmaking; this mechanism recognizes the epistemic oppression and thusly hyper-values the knowledge of the Yurok and Karuk tribes in this regard. Joshua sees this as a resilience-creating tool as well, a paper trail of understanding that is both formalized and norm-creating for further civic discourse.

The Civic Voice Platform allows for the accessibility and utility of data to bridge the gap between lived realities and policymaking each citizen user brings their experience and can better understand the experience of others through the use of this open and free public good. The second component of the Civic Voice Platform is the experience of the government user, which will ultimately, in our future ideal world, utilize this data to design more effective policy. More effective policy that takes the microcosm of experiences of the citizens above and can efficiently extrapolate themes, trends, and needs. Follow our blog series for this second installment in the series.