Klamath Dam Removal Takes Step Forward

by Craig Tucker
Monday, December 15, 2008

In the Western water wars, it's the equivalent of the Berlin Wall coming down. That's how important the demolition of four dams on the salmon-starved Klamath River will be if a promising agreement is carried out.

-San Francisco Chronicle, November 14, 2008

Today, there is light at the end of the tunnel in the long and contentious battle over the management of the Klamath River near the California-Oregon border, where dams and diversions have decimated once-healthy fisheries, left behind poisonous waters contaminated with algae, and angered tribes, farmers and fishing communities.

In mid-November, a diverse group of stakeholders in the region agreed to a plan that advocates for removal of four dams on the Klamath River, opening up a path to the biggest dam removal in the US, and possibly the world.

Although the non-binding agreement is only a preliminary step to a binding long-term agreement with more than two dozen stakeholder groups - including Federal, state, local and tribal governments, and farm, ranching, conservation and fishing groups - most parties to the agreement saw the announcement as a bold step forward in the struggle to restore one of America's greatest rivers.

According to Karuk tribal leader Leaf Hillman, "The salmon aren't in the smokehouse yet, but I'm more optimistic than ever that these dams' days are numbered."

Tribes have been pressing for the removal of the fish-killing dam for years.
Tribes have been pressing for the removal of the fish-killing dam for years.
Klamath Justice Coalition

What's more, the dam removal plan would provide the missing element of the more comprehensive Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement which provides a means to balance irrigation needs with the needs of fish, a plan for reintroducing salmon to the upper Klamath Basin, and a host of other benefits for Klamath Basin's struggling rural economies. This plan was released by a coalition of stakeholders that included the Karuk, Yurok and Klamath Tribes, two irrigation groups, and a host of fishing and conservation organizations.

Significant hurdles remain to dam removal. The Agreement in Principle to remove the dams must be finalized, federal legislation must be passed, and the Secretary of Interior must rule that the current view that dam removal is in the public interest must be confirmed by a scientific analysis.

Removing the dams would open up some 300 miles of river that has been inaccessible to salmon for nearly a century. Klamath salmon are now at less than 10% of their historic populations, according to fishery experts. The Klamath deal came a few days before the release of a report showing almost two-thirds of native freshwater fish on the brink of extinction in California.

The Bush Administration was jolted into action by back to back disasters in 2001 and 2002. These were drought years in the region. In 2001, farmers were denied irrigation water in order to protect endangered fish. Farmers and ranchers staged dramatic demonstrations culminating in the militant seizure of the irrigation head gates.

In 2002, irrigation flows were restored but resulted in a massive fish kill that fall on the Yurok reservation where as many as 68,000 adult salmon died before spawning. "We all have those images of what happened in the Klamath," Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Nobody wants to see those images again, so we were motivated to find a solution."

According the Agreement in Principle, PacifiCorp will contribute $150 to $200 million to dam removal, and California will chip as much as $250 million. The larger Basin Restoration Plan calls for nearly $1 billion in spending over the next 12 years, although only half of this figure requires new funding.

By two separate estimates, dam removal would be cheaper than modifying them with fish ladders.

The dams' owner, PacifiCorp (owned by billionaire Warren Buffett), says it is committed to seeing the deal through to dam removal, and argues that its customers will pay less under the terms of the agreement than they would if the dams are relicensed. Federal agencies have mandated the construction of $300 to $400 million worth of fish ladders if the dams remain.

A number of groups have not signed on to the deal, including the Hupa Indian tribe and a group of farmers. Some environmental groups not directly involved in the process condemned the deal it as taking too long to save the fisheries, leaving too many loopholes for the dams' owners, and other problems.

But Steve Rothert of American Rivers said, "This agreement really is a big step forward. Two years ago PacifiCorp said they would only consider removing the dams if somebody gave them a billion dollars. Today, they have agreed to pay $200 million to get rid of these old dinosaurs and all the problems they cause. A restored Klamath River will pay off that investment many times over as healthy salmon runs return each year, in perpetuity."

The next step is for the parties to sign a binding agreement by June 30, 2009. Then the federal government will study the feasibility of dam removal and make a ruling by March 2012, when the secretary of the interior would make a final decision. The target date for removal is 2020.

More information: 

Read the interview with Craig Tucker, Klamath Campaign Coordinator of the Karuk Tribe.

Latest additions: