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Nonprofit behind Klamath River dam removal offers plan for allocating water to fight wildfires

In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a helicopter is seen carrying a bucket on the Southeastern corner of the Bootleg fire, July 19, 2021
Bootleg Fire Incident Command via InciWeb
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In this photo provided by the Bootleg Fire Incident Command, a helicopter is seen carrying a bucket on the Southeastern corner of the Bootleg fire, July 19, 2021

Four dams in the Klamath River along the Oregon and California border are in the process of being removed. But that means reservoirs previously used as a water source for firefighting will ultimately be gone too. The Klamath River Renewal Corporation is overseeing the removal of the dams. We learn more from Mark Bransom, CEO of the organization, about what’s being done to balance dam removal and firefighting in the region.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Geoff Norcross, in for Dave Miller. The largest ever dam removal project in the United States is coming ever closer to reality. Four major dams on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and Northern California could start coming down as early as next year. The reservoirs that back up behind those dams had been a handy source when wildfires broke out in the Region and firefighters needed water to fight them. Once those reservoirs draw down, what then? We’re going to talk about this with Mark Bransom, Chief Executive Officer of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation [KRRC], that’s the nonprofit that was established by stakeholders to oversee the river, and ensure its vitality. Mark Bransom, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Mark Bransom: Thank you, Geoff.

Norcross: Can you give me a sense for how important those reservoirs are for wildland firefighting in Northern California and Southern Oregon, where there have been many fires over the years?

Bransom: Yeah, they certainly have been reliable sources of water for firefighting agencies. And the renewal corporation acknowledges that when those reservoirs go away, it will require agencies to take a very different approach to addressing water supply and  fire fighting in the Region. And that’s why the Renewal Corporation has been working really closely with firefighting agencies in California and Oregon to develop a very comprehensive and robust fire management plan that has the cooperation of those agencies as well as their endorsement. So we’re very pleased with where we are with regard to the development of an alternative approach.

Norcross: And we’ll talk about some of the specifics of that plan in a minute. But first, the KRRC put out an op-ed saying that firefighting resources will stay strong after the dams are removed. Why did you feel it was necessary to get that message out there?

Bransom: Well, we live in the area and it’s not lost on us that wildfire is part of our reality, and conditions are changing. They’re changing in the sense that we’re seeing more fires, earlier in the season, and we need to have a wide range of tools at the disposal of the firefighting agencies to address fires. So we have always been keenly aware of the importance of developing alternative approaches as part of our project.

Norcross: What concerns have you heard from residents about fire protection and how the removal of the dams might affect it?

Bransom: Well, they are legitimately concerned that the agencies are no longer going to have access to the reservoirs as a water supply, and they’re simply asking about the plan and want to know what the options are and what’s going to be done. We have both sort of a community obligation as well as a regulatory obligation to answer that legitimate question. That’s why we started early on this effort, engaging with Cal-Fire and the Oregon Department of Forestry to start thinking about how to address this change in firefighting resources and have come up with a plan that we think,

meets the tests.

Norcross: How long have you been working on this?

Bransom: Oh, we started working on this plan as early as 2017. It was one of the first things that I initiated when I took this position.

Norcross: How has the plan changed over the last five years or at least, you know, the draft plan?

Bransom:  Yeah, well, we have continued to evolve the options as we’ve learned more. We have engaged significant groups of professionals to review our plan and to make recommendations for improvements. So we’ve really taken kind of a comprehensive approach, including peer review, to ensure that we put forward the very best plan and that ultimately we implement the plan and provide resources that will ensure that the ability to fight fires today is no different, no worse, certainly, than after the dams come down.

Norcross: Alright, let’s talk about some specifics. It’s not all about water storage, but that is the big deal here. What alternative source of water will you make available to firefighters when they need it?

Bransom: The Fire Management Plan really is a three pronged strategy. The first is to enhance early detection capabilities. Firefighting agencies are making a move towards utilization of technology to shift away from human detection to more technological resources, and that includes the use of infrared sensing cameras and other technologies that allows for early detection.

Norcross: Those cameras aren’t out there already?

Bransom: There are many networks of cameras that the firefighting agencies use and we will be investing in expanding the networks to cover this area and other areas that the firefighting agencies have designated as high priority. So enhancing early detection capability is really the first of the three pronged strategy.

The second is to develop water supplies. So we’re going to install infrastructure in the main stem of the river as well as around the footprint of the dam removal project that will allow firefighting agencies access to water after the reservoirs are gone. So we will install pipelines that will be permanently placed into the river in deep pools that will be available even under low flow conditions, that fire agencies will be able to connect to. We’ll be providing portable tanks so that the agencies can move water supplies around as they need to, to fill those tanks and provide access to water supply for helicopters or other firefighting resources. And then lastly, on the water supply side, once the dams come down, the reservoirs go away, and we have a good feel for the re-establishment of the channel, the river channel, we’ll be doing some mapping and providing that mapping to the firefighting agencies that will show them the locations where we best believe they will be able to have access to pools of water, primarily for access by aerial equipment, so by helicopters in particular. So that really is the kind of the portfolio of water supply alternatives that we will be implementing. And then the 3rd prong in this approach is really to support work on fuels management. A lot of emphasis is being put on fuels management, so the Renewal Corporation will be providing some equipment, including a chipper, a dump bed and a truck, in addition to a water tender so that local residents can do fuels management on private property and the agencies will have access to that equipment as well. So, those are the three parts of the strategy that the Fire Management Plan lays out to ensure that the conditions are just as good after the reservoirs are gone as they are today for the firefighting agencies.

Norcross: Okay, well, let’s talk about the second part of that three pronged approach and that is the water. This Region is in drought. Is there enough water available for firefighters to do what they need to do with it, as well as irrigation and drinking water and all the other needs, when wildfire breaks out?

Bransom: That’s a good question. The firefighting agencies have reviewed the plan, as I said. They have cooperated and collaborated in the development of the plan and they have endorsed the plan as being sufficient to address the conditions that they anticipate that they will face with regard to fighting wildfires and their capability to do so. Let me just comment that the operation of the Klamath River will continue to be controlled at Link River Dam, Upper Klamath Lake. The flows in the river are not expected to change, as a result of the dam removal project. The loss of the reservoirs, of course, is something that will occur, we’ve been talking about that. With regard to the flows in the river and access to other water supplies, there really is no other impact from the dam removal project itself.

Norcross: You talked about these infrared high-tech cameras that you’re going to be putting out there for early spotting and early detection methods. Where are you going to put them?

Bransom: Well, the fire agencies have existing networks, as I mentioned, and so they have towers and other facilities where these cameras are mounted. There will be some new locations that we will be installing the cameras and we’ll be including those on existing infrastructure, primarily existing towers and other facilities that will help expand that network to keep additional technological eyes on the Region.

Norcross: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking about the possibility of four reservoirs being drained on the Klamath River in Oregon and California. And what that might mean for firefighting. Mark Bransom is the CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. Mark, you mentioned during this whole process of putting your plan in place, you went through peer review. A lot of people looked at it, but you can’t escape the fact that this is new territory that we’re in. Is there any example, anywhere in the world, of dams coming down in a dry, wildfire-prone part of the world where a water supply is necessary for firefighting efforts?

Bransom: Yeah, this is uncharted territory, in this part of the world, Geoff, as you say, and that’s why we have just put such a significant emphasis on the development of this plan and we’ve allocated significant financial resources to allow for complete implementation. We’ve had some of the very best minds involved in the development of the plan and we believe that it positions the firefighting agencies as well as they can possibly be positioned to continue to do the good job that they do of detecting and deploying resources to fight these wildfires. So we’re optimistic and confident that the plan will, once fully implemented, will be sufficient to address the challenges.

Norcross: Did those firefighting agencies share any concerns with you that there wouldn’t be water available for them when they needed it?

Bransom: Sure, they appreciate that the loss of these open reservoirs, that are easily accessed by aircraft, results in a significant change in their strategy and their approach and that’s why they were so thoughtful in contributing to the development of the plan. They understand that this is change, and they’re accustomed to dealing with changed conditions, whether that’s drought or other limits on water supply or other resources. So they were very helpful in putting together a portfolio of approaches that really, I think, ensures that the changed conditions don’t result in any loss of ability to respond to and fight the fires in the future.

Norcross: It’s probably important to take a step back here, that and reconsider the fact that we are talking about four major dams coming down, especially in a wildfire prone part of the world, and a lot of people across the country may be looking at their rivers and their dams and wondering if they can do the same thing. I’m wondering, you know, from your position with the KRRC, If you could tell us, you know, what are the important things to keep in mind as maybe other places are looking to work towards that same goal?

Bransom: Yeah, I think it’s just important whether it’s firefighting or you know, other potential impacts from these these kinds of projects, just to engage the professionals and a broad cross section of stakeholders and to do so early; start looking at a full range of opportunities and alternatives and really, use a consensus-based and professional approach with peer review and stakeholder input to address the challenges, go through the alternatives and select the options that best meet the challenges and best meet the needs, and can be implemented for the long term. I mean that’s one of the things that this plan really stands up to, is that once the dams and the reservoirs are gone, the investment will have been made, and that investment will ensure ongoing access to the resources that we will be putting in place.

So I think that’s a tried and true approach and one that I would recommend for anyone else thinking about addressing the kinds of challenges that we’re facing on this project. This is one of many.

Norcross: And finally, what is it important for residents who live in the Klamath River watershed to keep in mind as this process of removing the dams goes forward?

Bransom: Well, they’re going to see a lot of activity. Once we get underway, we look forward to continuing to engage the communities around the reservoirs and the dams to ensure that they have up to date, real time information about the ongoing activities so that they can make necessary adjustments or plans and that they have a full appreciation for, for what to expect and specifically with regard to fire management, we’ll continue to communicate with folks exactly what the plan will do, what it will accomplish and continue to address questions that folks may have.

Norcross: Mark Bransom, thank you so much for this, I appreciate it.

Bransom: You’re most welcome, Geoff, good to be with you.

Norcross:  Mark Bransom is the CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Elizabeth Castillo