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Hundreds of thousands of California’s salmon are dying in a parasite epidemic. To save them, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has authorized the demolition of four hydroelectric dams on the California-Oregon border. The project is the largest of its kind ever embarked on in the U.S. and is expected to begin in 2023. Indigenous groups in the regions are hailing the decision to protect the salmon of the lower Klamath River, and by extension, protect a core aspect of the culture, beliefs, and diet of regional Tribes.
Why This Matters: Experts have predicted that rampant climate change will increase the frequency of pandemics like COVID-19, and sadly, it’s no different for non-human species. This salmon pandemic was brought on by a historic drought that left the 250-mile Klamath River shallow, allowing the Ceratonova shasta parasite to thrive. Klamath River Coho salmon are classified as threatened under the law and have declined by up to 95%. Spring chinook salmon have declined by 98%, and experts say that they may be facing extinction. For the Indigenous communities of the region, this disaster threatens their livelihoods and culture. In 2017, the lack of salmon forced the Yurok Tribe to buy fish at the grocery store for their annual salmon festival.
“The impacts are very real to the people here on the Klamath River. We understand these fish aren’t going to return in the numbers we need them to be when they come back as adults to feed the tribe and to support the local businesses and the local fisherman,” Barry McCovey Jr., the Yurok fisheries director, told SFGate.
The Yurok and Karuk tribes are both parties to the dam-removal agreement. Under the plan, PacifiCorp, the utility company that operates the dams, will jointly transfer its hydroelectric license to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, Oregon, and California.
An initial version of the agreement stalled in July 2020 due to legal challenges and concerns of whether the Klamath River Renewal Corporation could financially support the project.
Now, $45 million has been added to the project’s original budget of $450 million, with the additional funds provided in equal parts by the non-profit and the states.
The parties say that this is a win-win for the environment and the private company. When they were built, the dams split the 250-mile long river in half, but now their infrastructure is aging, and they would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring up to code. Additionally, PacifiCorp says that the power generated by the dams no longer makes up a significant amount of its portfolio. Since the dams aren’t used for flood control, removing them won’t put local communities in danger, although some residents may see impacts to local lakes created by the dams.
Indigenous groups in the region are celebrating the decision, which will unite the river for the first time in over one hundred years. “At its heart, dam removal is about healing and restoration for the river, for the salmon, and for our people,” said Yurok Tribe Chair Joseph James. “We are pleased to see dam removal come closer to reality through this agreement. Reaching this important milestone would not be possible without the many tribal people who have dedicated their lives to restoring the river.”
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