1) Environmental Justice Claim:
Members of the Yurok tribe and others in their coalition claim that hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River have caused the decline of salmon which are important to the tribes' for their traditional livelihoods and religions. The plaintiffs argue that the dams obstruct the passage of salmon upstream to their breeding grounds, and increase the temperatures of reservoir waters, resulting in the growth of an alga which is lethal to fish and which "produces toxins poisonous to wildlife and humans." (McConnell vs. PacifiCorp) The Yurok's coalition is pushing for the removal of four dams on the Lower Klamath: the J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and Iron Gate Dams, which are the major hydroelectric dams on the Lower Klamath. While the plaintiffs cannot definitively prove the relationship between the development and operation of hydroelectric dams and the decline of salmon in the Klamath, strong evidence of such a link exists, and further studies are likely to strengthen this evidence. The tribes (and fishermen in the area) characterize the Klamath dispute largely as a dispute over their rights to have access to the river's fish versus the company's interests and the interests of other users of water and electricity supplied by the dams. From the perspective of the Yurok, PacifiCorp is infringing on their rights to have access to abundant fisheries and the resources necessary to support these fisheries. The Yurok have an official right to the Klamath fisheries because the fisheries are located on the Yurok reservation and because tribal treaties guarantee these rights to the Yurok (Spain 2007). I am unclear as to the whether the Yuroks have legal rights to maintain traditional religious practices, but if so, it is likely that the dams would infringe upon these since they threaten the status of salmon important to the tribe's traditional religious ceremonies. I would need to do further research to clarify the specific legal rights of the Yurok.
PacifiCorp is required legally to comply with tribal treaty obligations, which, among other provisions, guarantee the maintenance of subsistence fisheries for tribes. Currently, the dams benefit only PacifiCorp and PacifiCorp's customers. The tribes and fishermen incur much greater loss than gain from the hydroelectric dams, as salmon are more important to their livelihoods than the electricity or irrigation provided by the dams. About one-third of the Yurok tribe does not use any electricity (McKinley 2007). While farmers and other people in the Klamath Basin obtain economic benefits from the dams, fishermen and tribes in this area also obtain significant economic benefit from the salmon which are threatened by the dams. The Pacific Fishery Management Council estimated that the "average annual personal income" from the Klamath fishery was about $92 million between 1970 and 2004, and declined to $33 million after 2006 (Spain 2007). By contrast, the Council approximated that the net value of the Klamath Hydroelectric Project was only $16.3 million (Spain 2007). Furthermore, the California Energy Commission recently conducted an economic analysis which indicated that removing the four major dams on the Lower Klamath would "be about $101 million cheaper" than keeping the dams and modifying them to allow for fish passage (Spain 2007).
2) Competing Characterizations of the Dispute:
Though PacifiCorp's president has said PacifiCorp would be open to the removal of dams on the Lower Klamath if this could be done without harming the economic interests of the company or its customers (Yardley 2006), PacifCorp wants to retain the dams, with modifications for fish passage if necessary. It is unclear under which circumstances dam removal would benefit PacifiCorp; further information on this topic would be beneficial to the Yurok and other dam opponents. PacifiCorp characterizes the dam dispute largely as an economic one, as does the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has a less biased view of the issue, however, and weighs the costs and benefits of dam removal, dam modification, maintenance of the dams in their current state, and other alternatives.
The States of Oregon and California take into account the interests of various parties to the dispute. However, as states they may sometimes see the Klamath dispute as a conflict between state and federal law, for example between the provisions of the Endangered Species Act (which requires protection of the habitats of endangered species) and state water laws. They must also consider reliability of electricity sources (hydropower is one such reliable source) along with other characteristics of these sources.
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