Klamath River Basin Plans Largest Dam Removal in American History

Klamath Basin Tribes and allies stage a protest against hydroelectric dams on the river. Image: Patrick McCully/Flickr

Four dams are set to be removed from the Klamath River, finally restoring salmon to the river after decades of population decline. Eight dams were built on the Klamath River between 1900 and 1962 to generate hydroelectric power, decimating the salmon populations and disrupting the ways of life of Native tribes throughout Northern California and Oregon. 

This plan to remove these dams emerged after years of negation between the Yurok — the largest tribe in California — environmental organizations, and PacifiCorp, the corporation which operates these dams. 

Why This Matters: The Klamath River was once the third-largest salmon run (once in the hundreds of thousands) in the continental United States, but now runs at a fraction of its original numbers. Moreover, one of five Pacific salmon species,  consistently decrease in population size: last year, the run had fewer than 700 fish. Another of these five salmon species, the Coho salmon, is now considered “threatened” and has the potential to become an endangered species. Studies have shown that removing the dams would benefit salmon populations

Salmon are integral to the way of life for the Yurok people. As Annelia Hillman of the Klamath Justice Coalition explained to NPR, “When we can’t be in our river, can’t eat our fish, it kind of takes our purpose away. We have one of the highest suicide rates … and I think that’s directly correlated to our lack of salmon and our inability to continue our way of life.”

Leading By Example: While hydroelectric power is an emissions-free energy source, it’s also important to consider the effects dams have on surrounding ecosystems and the people who have depended on those ecosystems. This effort to remove dams is unprecedented — dams are traditionally expensive and difficult to take down. But this project could set a precedent.

Amy Cordalis, a Yurok tribal leader, told the BBC: I think one of the coolest parts about this whole project is we’re setting a precedent for the world to follow. I think the approach of working together with the company, with states, with tribes, with environmentalists, to reach an agreement that allows these dams to be removed for the tribes and for American citizens to benefit from the restoration of this river in a way that costs less money than it would be to relicense [the dams] – that’s really a model of how you might approach sustainable river restoration across the world.”

A Counterintuitive Benefit for PacifiCorp: It might make good business sense for a power company to be in favor of dam removals, though it may seem counterintuitive. The cost to renew the operating license for these dams would be $400 million, since the company would have to install fish ladders that enable migration. Meanwhile, removing the dams would be cheaper, as PacifiCorp would only have to pay $200 million, and $250 million would come from the State of California. Moreover, the dams comprise less than 8% of PacifiCorp’s generated renewable energy.

What a Biden Admin Means for the Klamath: As the Herald and News reported, the last three presidential administrations have been considerably active in Klamath Basin issues regardless of political party.

  •  Negotiations for a basin-wide agreement began under the Bush Administration and continued under the Obama Administration until faltering in the House of Representatives — though each president’s approach has varied.

So how do the Yurok people surmise President-elect Joe Biden might handle basin issues?

Paul Simmons, executive director of Klamath Water Users Association, told the Herald and News that he’s paying special attention to who Biden chooses to lead departments that oversee Klamath Basin science and irrigation operations, particularly The Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Fish and Wildlife Service. Despite changes at the top of these organizations, personnel in local offices won’t change.

“I’m confident there will be people that we can work with,” Simmons said. “Administrations are going to continue to change, and we’re not going anywhere.”


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