After more than two decades of fighting to save a main artery of their cultures from feared ecological collapse, Klamath River tribes are on track to see the lower river run freely for the first time in more than a century by 2025.
On Nov. 17, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its final nod to plans to remove four hydroelectric dams from the lower Klamath, putting the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history on course to begin next year.
The vote was unanimous.
"This moment is bigger than anyone could comprehend," said Amy Cordalis, a Yurok tribal member and the tribe's former general counsel, in a video recorded after the commission hearing and posted to Twitter. "For so long, our ancestors have fought for this moment. For so long, our families on the river have sacrificed. We've lost fish, we've lost people, we've cried, we've fought, and yet here we are in this historic moment where the world is rallying behind us and acknowledging our pain and saying, 'No more.' So now, we can transition to welcoming the salmon home, to preparing the river to accept those fish, and that's how it should be. That's an exercise of who we are as Indigenous people of the Klamath River."
The vote — which officially approves a license surrender from the dam's owner, the Berkshire Hathaway-owned PacifiCorp, to the states of California and Oregon and the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation that was formed to oversee removal — is seen as the last major regulatory hurdle remaining for the project. The approval came 20 years after the dams were widely blamed for causing the poor water quality that led to a massive fish kill, with 35,000 to 70,000 adult salmon washing up on the river's banks in September of 2002.
Despite salmon runs in the river having declined to an estimated 5 percent of their historic averages amid deteriorating conditions — prompting the Yurok and Karuk tribes to repeatedly cancel recreational and commercial seasons for the fishery their people have subsisted on since time immemorial — there is optimism that restoring the river's natural flow through dam removal will have profound impacts. It will open some 300 miles of spawning habitat to salmon and steelhead in the main stem and tributaries beyond the dams, decrease water temperatures and algal blooms and improve water quality, according to repeated studies.
"We know other dam removal projects in the West have seen dramatic beneficial responses for fisheries and wildlife, and the Klamath River has tremendous potential to recover and rebuild as this work is done," North Coast Congressmember Jared Huffman said following the vote. "Congratulations to all of those who have worked to right this wrong and restore balance to the river."
It was ultimately the science — reinforced over years of work by the tribes and environmental nonprofits — showing both the harm caused by the four dams and the restorative potential of their removal that swayed the commission to approve the project, despite objections from some upriver interests concerned about potential liabilities.
Before the Nov. 17 vote, FERC Commissioner Allison Clements said the balance clearly tipped in favor of removal.
"I recognize that the decision to remove hydropower project dams affects many people, and that this approval is not without opposition," she said. "However, the record reflects overwhelming support for removal. I am convinced that the important environmental, cultural and economic benefits that will be realized make removal in the public interest."
For the Karuk and Yurok tribes, self-described river people for whom the Klamath and its salmon are central to their cultures, diets and economies, and who carry the scars of past removal agreements that have collapsed, the Nov. 17 vote was described as "monumental," a final tipping point toward removal.
The tribes were driving forces behind the landmark 2010 removal agreement, which brought in upriver irrigators and ranchers in an attempt to forge a comprehensive solution for the entire Klamath basin but ultimately died on the vine when Congress failed to pass the legislation necessary to move it forward. They were also integral in resuscitating that agreement in a significantly scaled-back form in 2016. And when a FERC ruling in 2020 undercut that accord, tribal officials and Native activists were at the forefront of a multi-pronged push to get Berkshire Hathaway executives to the negotiating table to revise the agreement to address FERC's concerns regarding potential liability, cost overruns and PacifiCorps' ongoing responsibility.
The push included a Congressional hearing helmed by Huffman that took PacifiCorp executives to the proverbial mat for deteriorating conditions on the river, social media campaigns aimed at raising awareness, days of action aimed at raising pressure on Berkshire Hathaway and, finally, a Klamath River tour for the company's executives that was led by tribal officials and interrupted by tribal activists. It all resulted in what was described as a "perfect storm" that brought Berkshire Hathaway to the negotiating table. Once there, the company's executives found the science was sound and removal was both in the company's interest and the right thing to do — a sentiment famed Berkshire Hathaway Chair Warren Buffett expressed in a press release announcing the deal, saying he recognized the "importance" of dam removal for tribal people and future generations.
The final agreement will see the dams removed using $450 million already raised for the purpose — $200 million from PacifiCorp ratepayers and $250 million in water bonds authorized by California's Proposition 1 — with California and Oregon pledging another combined $45 million to cover potential cost overruns or liabilities. The states and Berkshire Hathaway agreed to split any costs exceeding that moving forward.
With the Nov. 17 vote, preparation for removal will begin early in 2023, including road and bridge improvements needed for the massive undertaking. The Copco 2 dam will then be the first to go in the summer of 2023, with removal of the other three — Iron Gate, Copco 1 and J.C. Boyle — slated to be completed by the close of 2024.
After years of disappointments that necessitated cautious, conditioned statements, the finality of FERC's Nov. 17 decision was underscored by the exuberance of the ones from tribal officials that followed.
"The Klamath salmon are coming home," proclaimed Yurok Chair Joseph James. "The people have earned this victory and with it, we carry on our sacred duty to the fish that have sustained our people since the beginning of time."
Karuk Tribal Chair Russell 'Buster' Attebery said it was a victory "well earned" by the thousands who fought for the river.
Klamath Justice Coalition co-founder Molli Myers noted that FERC's decision came near the 20th anniversary of the catastrophic fish kill.
"After the 2002 Fish Kill, we committed ourselves to defending our river and our cultures no matter what it would take," Myers said. "That kind of extraordinary commitment by ordinary Indians is what led to this victory."
Back on Twitter after the ruling, after posting the video of herself digesting the moment, Cordalis posted a picture of federal officers in a boat near the Klamath River's mouth, taking several Native people into custody for fishing.
"Thinking of my Great Grandma Geneva and how she told me it was my time to fight for the River," Cordalis wrote. "This victory is for you Granny, and all the ones we have lost along the way. #TheSalmonAreComingHome."
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org.