Dams On The Klamath River In California Will Be Demolished As Part Of A “Momentous” Restoration Effort

A plan to remove four dams from a Californian river and open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat was approved by U.S. officials on Thursday. If implemented, this would be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in history.

The lower Klamath River dams’ unanimous approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the last significant regulatory hurdle and the biggest victory for a $500 million destruction plan that has been supported by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years. For the first time in more than a century, the project would restore free-flowing conditions to the lower half of California’s second-largest river.

In a vast and lonely region that straddles the California and Oregon borders, native tribes that depend on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life have been a major force behind tearing down the dams. If no unexpected issues arise, Oregon, California, and the organization established to handle the project would accept the license transfer and dam demolition may start as early as this summer, according to supporters.

After the vote, Yurok Chairman Joseph James declared that the Klamath salmon were returning home. We continue to fulfill our spiritual obligation to the fish that have sustained our people since the dawn of time because the people have earned this victory.

FILE: Klamath Dam Removal On March 3, 2020, extra water bursts through Copco 1, a dam on the Lower Klamath River near Hornbrook, California. Construction on the initial phases of the greatest dam destruction project in American history might begin as early as this summer in California, saving fish that are in danger of extinction.

On Thursday, November 17, 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is scheduled to vote on whether to accept PacificCorp’s request to surrender its hydropower license for four dams on the lower Klamath River in remote northern California.

When operating at full capacity, the dams provide less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s electricity, or enough to light around 70,000 homes, according to Bob Gravely, a spokesman for the utility. But due to low river levels and other problems, they frequently operate at a far lesser capacity, and the deal that made Thursday’s vote possible was ultimately a financial choice, he said.

Under environmental restrictions that did not exist when the old dams were constructed, PacifiCorp would have had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on fish ladders, fish screens, and other conservation enhancements. However, with the agreement passed on Thursday, the utility’s cost is restricted to $200 million, with an additional $250 million coming from a water bond approved by California voters.

“The fact that we are decommissioning coal facilities and constructing wind farms must ultimately balance out. It isn’t one-on-one, “About the upcoming dam demolition, he stated. “You can make up that power by operating the remainder of your facilities differently or by reducing energy consumption among your customers.”

According to Amy Souers Kober, a representative for American Rivers, which tracks dam removals and promotes river restoration, approval of the order to surrender the dams’ operating license is the cornerstone of the most ambitious salmon restoration plan in history, and the project’s scope, measured by the number of dams and the amount of river habitat that would be reopened to salmon, makes it the largest of its kind in the world.

The Klamath River and its tributaries, which total more than 300 miles (483 kilometers), will benefit, according to her.

The choice fits with a national trend to demolish old and inefficient dams as their licenses are up for renewal and they must pay the same government-mandated upgrade fees that the Klamath River dams would have.

According to American Rivers, 1,951 dams have been removed across the US as of February, including 57 in 2021. As facilities get older and need to reapply for licenses, the majority of those have been removed in the last 25 years.

The decision was described as “momentous” and “historic” by commissioners on Thursday. They also stressed the significance of making the decision during National Native American Heritage Month because it will help restore salmon and revitalize the river, which is central to the cultures of several local tribes.

“Why are we eliminating the dams, some people might wonder in this day of the urgent need for zero emissions. First, we must realize that this is a rare occurrence; many of these projects received licenses when environmental concerns weren’t as prominent “Richard Glick, chairman of FERC, stated. “Some of these initiatives have a substantial influence on fish as well as the environment.”

The impact of energy projects on tribes, according to Glick, was previously ignored by the commission but was now a “very crucial feature” of Thursday’s ruling.

To represent their hopes for the river’s regeneration, supporters from the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa Valley tribes built a bonfire and watched the voting from a remote Klamath River sandbar through a satellite uplink.

Commissioner Willie Phillips remarked, “I hear that some of those tribes are watching our meeting today on the (river) bar, and I offer a glass to you.”

According to Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers, the vote occurs at a crucial time when human-caused climate change is devastating the Western United States with an extended drought. He claimed that permitting the second-largest river in California to flow regularly, along with its flood plains and wetlands, would lessen such effects.

The best approach to deal with the rising number of floods and droughts, he asserted, is to let the river system function normally.

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More than 14,500 square miles (37,500 square kilometers) make up the Klamath Basin watershed, and the Klamath River itself was once the third-largest salmon-producing river on the West Coast. However, the dams, built between 1918 and 1962, effectively split the river in half and keep salmon from accessing breeding areas upstream. As a result, salmon runs have been declining for a while.

Copco 2, the smallest dam, might be demolished as soon as this summer. Beginning in early 2024, the remaining dams—one in southern Oregon and two in California—will be incrementally removed in order to restore the river to its natural form by the end of the year.

There has been debate concerning the dam removal plans.

Homeowners on Copco Lake, a sizable reservoir, are adamantly opposed to the destruction plan, and ratepayers in the rural counties near the dams are concerned that the expense of any overruns or liability issues will fall on the shoulders of taxpayers. Critics also contend that removing the dam won’t be sufficient to safeguard the salmon due to the shifting ocean conditions that the fish must navigate before returning to the river where they were born.

“Will this contribute to the increasing production of salmon is an important question. It has everything to do with what’s happening in the ocean, and we believe that this will be a fruitless endeavor “Siskiyou County Water Users Association president Richard Marshall made the statement. “Nobody’s ever tried to solve the issue by fixing the current circumstance instead of just knocking down the dams,”

The proposal was nearly killed when American regulators raised concerns about the possibility of cost overruns and liability issues in 2020. However, Oregon, California, and PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelectric dams and is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, banded together to add an additional $50 million in contingency funds.

Up to the start of the destruction, PacifiCorp will keep the dams in operation.

The destruction of two dams on the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 2012 was the greatest U.S. dam demolition to date.

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