Klamath dams and Hetch Hetchy restoration

A comparison of water and power issues

As reported by The High Country News, the Interior Department has announced that four dams on the Klamath River will be removed. The dam removal will take place, however, without resolution of the water conflicts at play.

For decades, the disruption of the Klamath's River flow and its degraded quality have seriously impaired salmon populations on which Native Americans - principally the Yurok, Karok and Hoopa Valley Tribes - have depended for millennia. The issue came to a head in 2002, when more than 70,000 salmon died while returning to spawn. The two principal causes are (1) that water stored behind hydropower dams near the Oregon-California border becomes too hot in the summer sun, causing algae blooms and oxygen depletion, and (2) these water quality problems are exacerbated by the upstream diversions which reduce the river's flow.   



The Klamath Basin straddles the California-Oregon border

I thought I would take a moment to compare very briefly the issues concerning the Klamath River to those we face as advocates for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy.  


San Francisco's powerplants in the Tuolumne watershed

First, however, let's be clear. Many dams provide critically important benefits to our cities and farms. Some, however, are needlessly destructive and the harm they cause outweighs the benefits they provide.

When the Klamath Dams are removed, they will no longer produce hydropower. About 896 gigawatt-hours (gWh) annually will be lost. (One gigawatt-hour equals 1,000,000 kilowatt-hours, enough electricity to power 200 homes for a year.)

Our estimate of the hydropower loss resulting from Hetch Hetchy's restoration is lower - ranging from 338 gWh (if run-of-river flows are still diverted through the Kirkwood Powerhouse) to 690 gWh (if Kirkwood is eliminated altogether). When Hetch Hetchy is restored, energy production at the Holm and Moccasin Powerhouses would likely experience only minimal changes. Restore Hetch Hetchy's view is that lost hydropower should be replaced with renewable power, probably solar.

Figure 1, below, shows that recent and proposed changes in hydropower generation are very small compared other recent changes in electricity production in California. Changes in production on the Klamath or Tuolumne rivers are insignificant in a statewide context, as are other changes in hydropower that have taken place in recent decades. For more information, see Hetch Hetchy and Hydropower in California (2015).


Changes in hydropower are very small compared to either the energy lost when nuclear plants are closed or to the amounts of renewable generation being installed in California.

As noted above, the recent decision to move forward with dam removal on the Klamath does not include a resolution of the dispute over water. Native American Tribes along the lower reaches of the river and others who champion restoration of the Klamath's salmon fishery want more water to flow downstream. Upper Basin interests, on the other hand, including not only farmers but also advocates for the Klamath wildlife refuges, are concerned that they will not have enough water to meet their needs. Resolution of this conflict is not on the horizon.

As our supporters know, Restore Hetch Hetchy does not begrudge San Francisco the use of Tuolumne River water. We object only to the manner in which it is stored - we do not believe that an iconic glacier carved valley in Yosemite National Park should be used as a water tank. It is our intention to present evidence before the California courts that the value of restoration is greater than the cost of making it possible and that the ongoing operation of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is a violation of the California Constitution. Restoration can be accomplished without San Francisco losing a single drop of water supply.

We are excited about the prospects of our legal case, but will need additional funds to see it through. All contributions are greatly appreciated.