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US regulators vote to remove four dams on Klamath River

The move will be the largest dam removal in U.S. history and is expected to improve water quality and fisheries along with terrestrial and aquatic resources used by nearby tribes.

(CN) — After years of advocacy and research, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted Thursday to remove four aging hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border.

The agency’s Licensed Surrender Order for the Lower Klamath River Hydroelectric Project allows California, Oregon and nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation to accept transfer of the project license from dam owner PacifiCorp and begin the process of removing the four dams in 2023.

Altogether, the $500 million proposal is slated to be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history behind the 2012 removal of the Elwha Dam on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula and comes 20 years after a massive fish kill left over 60,000 salmon rotting along the banks of the Klamath River in 2002.

For some, the removal brings hope the salmon will come back.

“For the Yurok people, one, this means that our children are going to be able to fish,” said Ashley Bowers, Yurok tribal member and communications director for Ridges to Riffles, who likened the feeling of bringing salmon home to the hope of finding a lost relative.

“We’ve always been told that salmon are in our blood and so this is a part of us a community healing,” Bowers said. “If our rivers heal, then we can heal as people.”

According to Bowers, the vote came in early Thursday morning, followed by a brief celebration on the Klamath River banks by conservation groups and tribal members before spreading the word in office.

According to a press release from Karuk and Yurok Tribes, the dam removal and river restoration project was negotiated through an agreement between the Tribes, California, Oregon, conservation and fishing groups and PacifiCorp.

“This has been 15 years in the making and has gone through many twists and turns, but with the order today, we think that this gives the final approval needed for this to move ahead,” said Bob Gravely, regional business manager for Pacific Power, the West Coast unit of PacifiCorp.

“It's a great example of how a very complex and very difficult issue can be resolved by parties coming together and finding a compromise that ends up in a result that works for everyone,” Gravely added. “So, it has been very rewarding to be part of that conversation with so many diverse groups and parties and end up in a result that everyone is happy with.”

But while activities leading to dam removal will start in early 2023, Gravely doesn’t expect all four dams to fall immediately. According to Gravely, the plan is for one of the dams to be removed by summer 2023 and for the remaining three to come down in 2024.

“This is the final kind of regulatory approval needed, but there will still be a lot of work to actually be ready for the actual removal itself,” Gravely said.

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