KLAMATH, Calif. (CN) – The federal government will tear down four dams on the Klamath River in Northern California and Southern Oregon, in what Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called “the largest river restoration in the history of the United States.”
The settlement of a decades-long fight for river restoration was announced Wednesday at the mouth of the Klamath River on the Yurok Indian Reservation in Klamath, Calif.
Federal agencies and the state governments signed the settlement, which calls for work on the dams to begin in 2020.
The agreement will be filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July, and the dams’ owner PacificCorp will transfer its license to another company that will oversee the removal.
The settlement was signed by the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, PacificCorp, and the states.
Salmon and steelhead have been devastated by dams, agriculture, and climate change. Tribal leaders and environmentalists for decades have urged lawmakers to help restore the waterways.
Salmon fishing was a centuries-long way of life for many Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, including the Yurok and Klamath tribes.
Congress last year did not authorize two agreements for restoring the Klamath Basin that were brought by Oregon and California lawmakers. All parties involved created amended agreements this year that led to Wednesday’s announcement.
Jewell called it “historic,” though “just the first of many steps needed to restore the water and the fisheries’ resources.”
She called the 216-page agreement “important initial steps” to create a “road map for long-term restoration and sustainability for tribes, for fisheries, for agriculture and for water users across the basin.”
The agreement also covers irrigation water for farmers who rely on water from the Klamath Basin.
California Governor Jerry Brown called it a “good exercise of humankind correcting some of the mistakes it’s made in the past,” and said it could set an example for cleaning dirtier rivers.
“We’re starting to get it right after so many years of getting it wrong,” Brown said. “What a beautiful day.”
Oregon Governor Kate Brown called it a “first chapter” and said “healing the Klamath is about much more than the dams.”
“For the Klamath tribes, it’s about restoring lands and healthy watersheds that nurture fish, wildlife and plants,” the Oregon governor said.
“For ranchers and farmers, it’s about building a sustainable, predictable way of using water that is an important part of the region’s economic future.”
Karuk Chairman Buster Attebery recalled memories of growing up on the river and catching salmon.
“As a youngster it was a great honor to be given the responsibility to bring dinner home to the family,” Attebery said.
“Today, for the most part, our kids lack this opportunity. That loss leads to a loss of culture, a loss of personal identity, lost economic opportunities, and no doubt plays a role in the epidemic of depression and drug abuse we see in our communities.
“Today we make a stand to change course.”
Yurok Chairman Thomas O’Rourke, who spoke last, called the tribes along the Klamath River “the original stewards of the river.”
“We were fortunate. We didn’t have to migrate. We had our own utopia until we lost the ability to manage,” O’Rourke said.
“It has to do with …” O’Rourke paused. “Poor custodianship, I guess you could say.
“What’s sacred needs to be kept sacred.”
Dams that made water and hydroelectric power available to the parched West were seldom controversial until Marc Reisner’s 1986 book “Cadillac Desert” raised questions about development and water policy.
Reisner said, and the years proved, that development that brought millions of people to desert and semi-arid lands drained aquifers, hurt water quality and brought possibly irreversible environmental changes to the vast region. And silting of the dams made it inevitable that eventually they would have to be removed or dredged, at enormous expense, Reisner wrote.
Reisner’s book, and Charles Bowden’s 1977 book on the long-term results of overpumping groundwater, “Killing the Hidden Waters,” gave the growing environmental movement a solid basis to take a long, hard look at water policies in the West.
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