Dam removal plans concern rafting companies

Local whitewater rafting companies worry that plans to remove dams from the Klamath River could put some of their business under water.

PacifiCorp, a utility company that owns four hydroelectric dams on the river, is in the middle of closed-door talks with federal energy officials and representatives from Oregon and California concerning the fate of the dams. Recent talks have suggested a willingness on PacifiCorp's part to remove them as part of an effort to restore fish and wildlife to the Klamath Basin.

Among the interested parties not involved in those talks, however, is Bart Baldwin, co-owner of Noah's Rafting and Fishing Trips in Ashland. The developments worry Baldwin, who says removing the J.C. Boyle Dam, northernmost of the PacifiCorp dams, would deal a huge blow to local rafting businesses. The dam generates much of the water current necessary to support high-class rapids to the south. Were they to be removed, the water level would rise, but the rapids would be effectively buried.

While noting he's not a dam supporter, Baldwin said, "The bottom line is, if the dams come out it would be a pretty big hit for us."

Twenty miles west of Klamath Falls, the dam sits at the mouth of the John Boyle Reservoir on the Upper Klamath River. From May through October, Noah's Rafting runs one- and two-day whitewater excursions below the reservoir's mouth. Baldwin called the area "unique."

"It's probably the best whitewater day trip for a family that you can take in this region," he said. "There really isn't much that you can compare it to."

Another local rafting company, Kokopelli River Guides, views the situation in a similar light. Though owner Matt Dopp does not think the dam removal project would be drastic enough to push rafting companies out of business, he said dam workers generate 1,500 cubic feet of water per second to bolster the river's current, which puts the stretch of river in a league of its own when it comes to whitewater rafting.

"They peak the flow on the days we go," Dopp said. "At the end of the day they drop it back down to fish flow." He said his company would possibly remove the Upper Klamath River from its summer routes if the dams were removed.

The dams have long been a source of contention among PacifiCorp representatives, local environmental groups, American Indians who live in the Klamath region and farmers who rely on the water for irrigation. A recent analysis of the dams by PacifiCorp showed that removing them would be more cost-efficient than upgrading them.

Current negotiations seek to establish a tentative timeline and cost for removing the dams. The estimates suggest that, were de-construction to begin on the dams this year, they would be fully dismantled around 2020, in what would be the largest dam-removal project anywhere in the world.

"I certainly don't want to lose it, but if that does happen we'll roll with it," Dopp said.

Both Kokopelli River Guides and Noah's Rafting also use routes lower on the Klamath, as well as on the Rogue River. The owners said they are confident those other routes would keep business afloat, even without the Upper Klamath.

But Baldwin with Noah's Rafting said it is disheartening to be left out of the negotiations.

"We're basically waiting outside locked doors with no say whatsoever," he said.

Baldwin said with all the various viewpoints, he has no illusions that the rafting companies would get everything they want. But he said a seat at the table could help negotiators devise a solution geared toward removing the dams, while protecting the valuable whitewater rafting industry.

"We're not pro-dam," Baldwin said. "If (the river) were really being restored to its wild state, we would take our knocks from Mother Nature, smile and do what we had to do. That is not going to happen the way things are."

No firm deadline is in place to conclude the negotiations, which have been ongoing since early in the year.

Noah's Rafting has operated out of Ashland since 1979. Baldwin said it will continue to do so, regardless of any future developments. But losing the Upper Klamath runs would be a big hit for many in the local rafting industry, taking thousands of business dollars away.

"That's where the excitement is," Baldwin said. "That's where the bang for your buck is. Losing that would definitely hurt."

Elon Glucklich is a freelance writer living in Ashland. He can be reached at eglucklich@gmail.com or 335-9152.

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