The Klamath River and the tribal communities that depend on it got some welcome news this week, as what would be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history took a significant step forward.
Two decades after poor water quality on the river triggered a massive fish kill that left tens of thousands of salmon dead on the river's banks, federal regulators on Aug. 26 released a final environmental impact statement for plans to remove four large dams on the Klamath River, recommending the almost $500 million project move forward. In the document, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) staff recommends the commission approve decommissioning and removal of the dams, finding it would "result in benefits to water quality, aquatic resources, fisheries and terrestrial resources" used by area tribes.
The commission is expected to issue a final decision on the project later this year, with Klamath River Renewal Corporation — a nonprofit created to oversee dam removal — hoping to begin decommissioning work shortly after, with dam removal to follow in 2024.
"We can see the light at the end of the dam removal tunnel," said Karuk Tribal Chair Russell "Buster" Attebery in a statement.
The formal staff recommendation to approve removal of four hydroelectric dams that for decades have cut off hundreds of miles of spawning habitat and degraded water quality as salmon populations in the watershed have plummeted represents a monumental step forward. It is also the direct result of decades of advocacy, organizing and negotiating primarily led by the Karuk and Yurok tribes, whose cultures, diets and economies have been intertwined with the river and its salmon since time immemorial.
After all, it was a FERC ruling in 2020 that derailed the 2016 iteration of the dam removal agreement, itself a resuscitation of a more ambitious deal reached six years earlier. But after FERC found in 2020 that the dam's owner, PacifiCorp, could not simply transfer the dams' licenses to a new nonprofit and walk away liability free, the river tribes redoubled their efforts in search of a solution. Karuk and Yurok officials, along with an extensive grassroots advocacy campaign, worked to get billionaire Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, PacifiCorp's parent company, to the negotiating table, casting dam removal as both a social justice issue and a move that made financial sense for the company ("Fight of the River People," March 4, 2021).
In November, stakeholders announced a new agreement in which the states of California and Oregon agreed to sign on as co-licensees with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation through the removal process and Berkshire Hathaway agreed to split any additional liabilities or cost overruns.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham, who was key to negotiating efforts with Berkshire Hathaway last year, issued a statement applauding FERC for issuing the final environmental document ahead of schedule and "validating" dam removal as the right thing to do.
"While we continue to review the document, we welcome this critical milestone and look forward to advancing what will be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history and restoration of 400 miles of the Klamath River for the benefit of salmon, tribes and communities in the basin," Bonham said.
Also last week, the federal government announced $26 million in funding for Klamath Basin restoration projects as a part of the $1.4 billion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Joseph Biden last year. Specifically, North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman reported that $16 million in new funding will go toward ecosystem restoration projects in the basin, with the other $10 million allocated to expand the Klamath Falls National Fish Hatchery. Additionally, Huffman said the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will issue grants generating a total of almost $3 million for fish and wildlife habitat improvement projects as a part of the Klamath River Coho Restoration Grant and Trinity River Restoration programs.
In a statement, Huffman said he's spent years hosting forums and hearings to spotlight the toll climate crisis impacts and poor management have taken on the Klamath River, while working to find solutions.
"It is a satisfying victory to see this funding to revive an ecosystem on the brink of collapse," he said. "These funds will be used to prepare the Klamath River for one of our best opportunities to restore the basin: dam removal. By making sure the river is primed for restoration once the dams come out, we can ensure that project will be as effective as possible."
While the combined $29 million in federal funds represent the largest restoration investment in the basin in recent memory — if not ever — it's worth noting that the sum pales in comparison to what stakeholders initially deemed necessary. The first dam removal agreement reached in 2010 included more than $400 million in federal spending on fisheries restoration, reintroduction and monitoring over a 15-year period but that was contingent on Congressional approval and died when Republicans took control of the House just months after the deal was struck.
But it's also clear the river and its fish need all the help they can get.
According to a joint press release from the Yurok, Karuk and Klamath tribes, along with a host of nonprofit advocacy groups, Klamath River salmon runs have declined to less than 5 percent of their historic numbers. Earlier this year, the Karuk Tribe found a spec of good news when its annual spring Chinook count found 290 wild fish in spawning grounds 95 miles up river — a significant improvement over last year's count of 90. But celebrations were short-lived.
Soon after the count was finalized, a flash-flooding event hit the burn scar of the McKinney Fire, sending ash, silt and debris in the South Fork Salmon River, which dropped the river's dissolved oxygen levels, creating a miles-long "kill zone" in the Klamath River that suffocated thousands of fish.
"This is so painful to witness," said Karuk Tribal Councilmember Troy Hockaday in a press release. "I worry more every day that my children and grandchildren won't have the ability to harvest fish for their families; salmon have been a part of our subsistence, culture and ceremonies for thousands of years. It can't end here."
Tribal officials and biologists have long maintained that dam removal is a crucial step toward restoring the once abundant salmon populations.
With FERC's approval expected later this year, removal plans would call for the reservoirs behind the four dams — Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and J.C. Boyle — to be drawn down with the dams still intact in the middle of winter, when the river is flowing at its highest, to give sediment built up in the reservoirs the best chance of being flushed out to the ocean. Then, physical dam removal would begin in the spring and extend into summer.
After the Aug. 26 release of FERC's final environmental review, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation reported it expects dam removal activity to begin this year and be completed in 2024, "with the return of the river to a free-flowing condition."
For the Karuk and Yurok tribes that have fought to make that a reality for decades, it can't come soon enough.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.