California, Oregon, Tribes Join Plan to Restore Klamath River

FILE – In this March 2, 2020, file photo, birds take off from a marsh in the Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge in the Klamath Basin along the Oregon-California border. The refuge is not far from four dams on the lower Klamath River that could soon be demolished in the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus, File)

(CN) — Bolstering a bid to revive salmon populations that once sustained Native American tribes for thousands of years, California and Oregon agreed Tuesday to help fund a series of long-awaited dam removals on the Klamath River.   

With the addition of the states as partners in the demolition of four dams on the river that stretches from Oregon into Northern California, supporters say the plan now has the financial clout needed to gain federal approval. If things go as planned, the largest such dam demolition in U.S. history could begin as soon as 2023.

The coalition of states, tribes and environmentalists called Tuesday’s agreement a historic step in the decades-long effort to restore salmon to the majestic river.

“This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down, it’s a new day and new era for California tribes,” said Yurok Tribe chair Joseph James in a virtual signing ceremony. “We are connected with our hearts and prayers to these creeks, lands, animals, and our way of life will thrive with these dams being out.” 

The memorandum of agreement was unveiled simultaneously to an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of licensing hydroelectric projects. 

The application will transfer ownership of the four dams from the Berkshire Hathaway-owned PacifiCorp to another private entity called Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which in partnership with the states of California and Oregon, will remove the dams to allow salmon to run again. 

“This is the largest river restoration project in the history of this country,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom. “It will restore what once was the third-largest salmon run — 400 miles of habitat.”

The Klamath River is a 257-mile body of water that winds its way through frequently spectacular terrain belonging both to California and Oregon, spanning the high desert of eastern Oregon to the coastal forests of California. The river at times demarcates the border between the two states. 

It is the second-largest river and the most important river south of the Columbia River, which separates Oregon from Washington, in terms of providing habitat for anadromous fish. Anadromous fish, such as salmon or steelhead trout, are born in freshwater rivers, swim to the ocean where they spend the majority of their lives, before returning to the freshwater streams of their births where they spawn and die. 

Native Americans have inhabited the Klamath River Basin for approximately 7,000 years and relied on the large salmon runs for sustenance and various cultural practices. 

Beginning in the early 20th century, the Klamath Reclamation Project and other private entities began to construct dams on the river, both to regulate the flow, divert water to agricultural operations in southern Oregon and Northern California and store up water against periodic droughts. Six dams were constructed between 1908 and 1962. 

The construction of the dams not only limited the historic salmon runs that were a feature of the habitat for thousands of years but also led to water quality problems at farther down the river. 

The Yurok, Hupa and Kurok tribes, indigenous to the lower end of the Klamath River Basin, have repeatedly claimed the dams were hurting the river, the fish and its culture, suing multiple times in court. 

Their long fight culminated in Tuesday’s press conference where all five parties — California, Oregon, PacifiCorp, Klamath River Renewal Corporation and the tribes — detailed the next steps.

“It was a long road and there is a long road to go,” James said. 

The federal permit submitted to FERC on Tuesday must be resubmitted again in January 2021 before the ownership transfer can be fully completed. 

Once completed, the parties can begin the planning phase with an eye toward the removal of the four dams beginning sometime in 2023. 

“This is a step forward to restoring the health of the river,” said Oregon Governor Kate Brown. 

The river has long been ideal habitat for chinook salmon, rainbow trout and Coho salmon, but the construction of dams in the 1960s and the outflow of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients from farms made the lower river less and less tenable for a healthy fish population. 

The dams not only restricted the length of the salmon run and the number of tributaries they could use, but also hampered their ability to use the lower river. 

In 2002, more than 34,000 salmon died at once due to degraded water quality conditions, low flow and poor river management. The event prompted area tribes toward a concerted effort to remove the dams.  

The total cost for dam removal is estimated to be $450 million, with PacifiCorp ratepayers footing a portion of the bill and the state of California responsible for the rest. 

Tuesday’s signing of the agreement was hailed by environmentalists. 

“It’s great to see the project continuing to move forward,” said Curtis Knight, executive director of California Trout. “It’s been 100-plus years since Klamath salmon, which tribal communities depend upon, had access to the upper basin. This latest agreement all but paves the way for the largest river restoration project in U.S. history to finally be completed.”

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