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Federal approval clears way for Klamath dam removal

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Jason Jaacks
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Ecoflight
The Iron Gate dam is one of four dams on the Klamath River that will be removed.

The order is the last major regulatory step before four dams can be decommissioned. It marks the start of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.

On Thursday, November 17, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, approved the surrender of the license for four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. The order is the last major regulatory step before these dams can be decommissioned. It marks the start of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.

After 30 days, the licenses will officially be transferred from the utility PacifiCorp, which operates the dams, to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), a nonprofit formed specifically to oversee decommissioning and removal of the dams.

“I can’t overstate how emotional this day is,” says Frankie Joe Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “I just want to recognize all of the people who have fought along with us this whole way.”

Many stakeholder groups, including tribes, commercial fishermen, and watershed groups, have been advocating for the removal of the Klamath River dams for over 20 years, and while they celebrate the milestone, agricultural producers in the Upper Klamath Basin are wary.

“There's a certain disillusionment,” says Paul Simmons, a water rights attorney and executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. “[It’s] not so much related to the fact that the dams will be coming out, but to the abandonment of a partnership that was necessary for parties interested in removing dams to get that done.”

Dwindling salmon runs

The vast Klamath basin drains over 12,000 square miles and spans from southern Oregon to the north coast of California. For millennia, indigenous people relied on the river’s abundant runs of Chinook and coho salmon, along with steelhead, lamprey, and sturgeon.

Salmon in particular have declined precipitously over the past century. A host of factors are to blame, including the four dams built as part of the Klamath Hydroelectric Project. The first of the four dams was completed in 1912; the last, Iron Gate, in the 1960s. Only one of the dams has fish ladders, and the structures physically block fish from the Upper Basin and over 400 miles of habitat. The warm, stagnant water in the reservoirs feeds algae blooms, and the dams hold back sediment which could scrape disease-carrying organisms from the river bottom.

The last commercial harvest of coho salmon took place in the 1990s, and in 1997, the fish was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Now, the fall run of Chinook salmon is the only commercially viable run left. With the decline of fish runs, tribes have lost a key food resource along with cultural connections to the river. Tribal and commercial fishers have lost their livelihoods.

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Klamath River Renewal Corporation
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A map of the four dams that will be removed on the Klamath Basin.

The drought of 2001 marked a turning point. That year, the Bureau of Reclamation denied water to farmers in the Klamath Irrigation Project in the Upper Basin to help salmon in the parched river downstream. Simmons recalls that day as “shocking and terrifying.” “That was the day people learned that this kind of thing can happen,” he says.

In 2002, the Bureau held water for irrigators. Temperatures on the Lower Klamath River soared.

Myers, who had recently returned home to serve as fisheries technician for the Yurok Tribe, was taking part in his tribe’s World Renewal ceremony when the first dead Chinook salmon began washing up on the river’s banks.

At least 34,000 fish died in the event.

“It was absolutely shocking and absolutely life changing for me,” says Myers. He recalled the story his grandmother had told him, which contained a warning: If ever there comes a day when there are no salmon in the Klamath River, there will be no need for Yurok people here on earth.

“The 2002 fish kill made me really grapple with this concept that our way of life could go extinct,” says Myers.

The fish kill activated many tribal members to advocate for dam removal. They took every opportunity to comment on agency proceedings, underpinning their comments with scientific research.

“Meanwhile, the community also started going to Warren Buffett's shareholders meetings and PacifiCorp headquarters,” says Regina Chichizola, executive director for Save California Salmon, a nonprofit that advocates for policies which protect fish and fish-dependent communities. For the next two decades, tribal members and their allies made dam removal a top priority.

An historic agreement

At full capacity, the Klamath River dams can produce enough electricity to power about 70,000 homes, though in reality, they produce about half that, says PacifiCorp spokesperson Bob Gravely. The reservoirs do not provide drinking or irrigation water.

After the 2002 fish kill, many groups realized they were going to have to work together to solve the Klamath watershed’s mammoth issues. They also saw an opportunity: PacifiCorp’s license for the four dams was set to expire in 2006. To receive a new license, the dams would have to comply with current standards, including those for fish passage.

“The question was, does it make more sense to proceed to make all the necessary upgrades to be able to obtain a new license, or pursue some other path, including removal of the dams,” says Gravely.

By 2010, a diverse group of stakeholders, which included tribes, federal and state agencies, farmers, fishing groups, and conservation organizations, had signed two agreements. The first, called the Klamath Basin Renewal Agreement (KBRA), was a basin-wide blueprint for restoring habitat, establishing reliable water supplies, and spurring economic development. The second, the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), laid out a path for dam removal.

At first, the cooperation was pragmatic, recalls Simmons. “Everybody involved needed everybody else for something.” Over time, attitudes shifted. “At some point, it was like everybody wanted all of the parties to get their needs met,” says Simmons. “It was that powerful at one time.”

These agreements required Congressional approval to be implemented. They expired at the end of 2015 when Congress failed to consider them.

“That was really a sad day on the river,” says Myers, adding that the holistic, basin-wide approach was ahead of its time. “I don't think at the time our elected officials really could grasp the magnitude of the work that we were trying to accomplish.”

A smaller contingent of stakeholders regrouped and decided on an alternative path to dam removal that went through FERC and didn’t require Congressional approval. A newly created entity called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation would take over ownership and oversee the decommissioning of the dams.

The amended KHSA, which was signed in 2016, left out many of the provisions that protected ag producers, says Simmons.

“Are we going to have new regulatory burdens? Are we going to have new cost controls? We were hoping to have those sort of protections in place. And we don't yet.” Simmons is worried irrigators could get stuck with the bill for making required improvements such as screening irrigation diversions. He’s also concerned about the implications of imperiled species returning to the Upper Basin.

The process hit another snag in 2020, when FERC, concerned that the Klamath River Renewal Corporation wouldn’t be able to handle cost overruns, should they occur, ordered PacifiCorp to remain as co-licensee with KRRC. The company did not want to take on that liability and further burden its ratepayers.

“Something like 60,000 people called or wrote letters to PacifiCorp asking them to un-dam the Klamath,” says Chichizola. “An amazing amount of support came from all over the nation, especially from native organizations and climate justice organizations.”

The states of Oregon and California stepped in and agreed to share the financial burden with Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, which owns PacifiCorp. The agreement was formalized in a Memorandum of Understanding in late 2020.

Looking ahead

The $450 million price tag for dam removal is being funded through two major sources: $200 million from a surcharge on PacifiCorp ratepayer utility bills; and $250 million in bonds from the State of California.

It will be a long process. Throughout 2023, Kiewit Corporation, the company contracted for the removal of the dams, will build roads and other infrastructure. Copco 2, the smallest of the four dams, could be removed as early as June of next year, but drawdown of the remaining three won’t begin until 2024.

Resource Environmental Solutions is spearheading the restoration of the reservoir footprints and will conduct long-term monitoring of the sites.

Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the basin is seeing a welcome infusion of funding for restoration. Ongoing and planned projects should improve conditions for salmon and other fish both above and below the dams, and in the river’s tributaries.

“I believe that what we really are doing with this project, and why I call it a resiliency project, is creating conditions,” says Mark Bransom, executive director of the KRRC. “We're trying to create conditions that allow the many communities that rely on a healthy Klamath River an opportunity to recreate some type of balance that existed before the dams.”

Removing the dams won’t solve all of the Klamath Basin’s problems. Climate change is also altering what’s possible, says Myers.

“We have to make harder decisions now, and we have to have better leadership,” he adds. “Our decisions about what the future looks like really need to [focus on] what can we save in the basin.”

Juliet Grable is a writer based in Southern Oregon and a regular contributor to JPR News. She writes about wild places and wild creatures, rural communities, and the built environment.