The biggest dam removal project in American history is back on track, following an agreement last week to move ahead with demolition of four dams on the Klamath River in southern Oregon and Northern California. By securing additional state funds to guarantee the project, the agreement clears a financial logjam that has long delayed the world’s most ambitious salmon habitat restoration program.
The deal is a major victory for environmentalists, anglers, river-runners, and especially the Yurok and Kuruk tribes, whose culture and sustenance depend on the once-abundant salmon runs that the dams have all but annihilated over the last century.
“This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down. It’s a new day and a new era,” Yurok Tribe chairman Joseph James said. “Our way of life will thrive with these dams being out.”
The tribes have been at the forefront of a decades-long dam removal fight, leading a coalition that also includes environmental advocates, outdoor recreation groups, and the commercial fishing industry. An agreement to remove the dams was reached in 2010, but has stalled repeatedly over the sticky issue of who will pay for the removal. The most recent hitch came in July, when federal regulators questioned whether the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), which was formed to oversee the demolition and restoration program, could handle potential cost overruns.
The new plan adds a $45 million reserve to the project’s $450 budget, with the additional funds provided evenly by Oregon, California, and PacificCorp, the utility that owns the dams. If costs outrun the contingency fund, California and Oregon taxpayers, and PacificCorp will be on the hook. PacificCorp is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s investment company, Berkshire Hathaway.
The plan still must receive Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval. If the agency signs off as expected, demolition could begin in 2023. That timeline may sound familiar. When I rafted the Klamath with my family in 2018, the work was expected to begin in three years, thanks to a new agreement that had recently been signed. Now we have another new agreement, and dam removal is supposed to start in . . . three years.
The dams have been remarkably persistent considering they do little good for anyone. Built between 1908 and 1962, the four PacifiCorp dams are not designed for flood control or irrigation, and account for only 2 percent of PacifiCorp’s power generation capacity. They cut off hundreds of miles of salmon habitat on the Upper Klamath, which was once the third most productive salmon river on the West Coast. Toxic algae grows in the reservoirs behind the dams each summer, impacting fish populations and making the river hazardous for swimmers and even dogs.
Still, just talk of removing the dams has caused lakeside property values to plummet by half, provoking widespread opposition to the project from local people and county governments. Some farmers far upstream also have opposed the plan. Though two Klamath dams they rely on for irrigation are not slated for removal, they worry that any dam removal sets a precedent that could affect their livelihood.
Removing the dams would be a boon to recreational users, including anglers and boaters. The Lower Klamath below Happy Camp, Calif., supports a vibrant rafting industry, and the 35-mile stretch above it is one of the best multi-day floats in the West for young families. Farther upstream, dam removal would restore regular flows to Class III and IV canyons that have rarely run since the dams went in decades ago.
The most profound benefit, if the tribes, environmentalists and fisheries scientists are right, will be the return of the river’s life-giving salmon runs. Removal of the Klamath dams is the first step in the most ambitious salmon restoration effort in history. Paradoxically, that process will likely start with further stress on fish populations, as some 30 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dams flushes downriver. The silt, sand and gravel eventually will provide new breeding habitat for returning salmon and steelhead, but first it will create turbid conditions.
Dam removal critics say the sediments could take decades to clear. Proponents believe most of it will wash out in the first high-water season. That’s what happened https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/ after a 108-foot-high dam was removed from the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic peninsula in 2012. Sediment from the reservoir added miles of beach to the river’s delta, and spawning salmon were spotted upstream of the dam site weeks after demolition. Since then, more than 1,700 dams have been dismantled all over the United States. If the Klamath River project goes forward it will be the largest by far.
There’s no certainty in river restoration, but the science and limited experience with dam removal suggest the Klamath and its salmon populations can regain their pre-dam health, and that they can do so over the course of years rather than decades. For Chook-Chook Hillman, a Karuk tribal member fighting for dam removal, the question goes beyond science. It’s a matter of faith.
“If you provide a good place for salmon,” he said, “they’ll always come home.”
Top photo: Tony Webster