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Interior Secretary Haaland celebrates Klamath dam removal

Haaland copy.jpg
Juliet Grable
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (center) spoke at the Iron Gate fish hatchery along the Klamath River about the Klamath dam removal and river restoration.

On Thursday afternoon, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland visited Iron Gate Dam, along the Klamath River, to celebrate its decommissioning in what will be part of the largest dam removal and river restoration project in U.S. history.

Joined by California Rep. Jared Huffman, Governors Brown and Newsom, advocates of the restoration project and a host of tribal representatives, Haaland acknowledged the perseverance tribes have had in the face of federal Indian policy in the U.S.

“There was so much infrastructure that happened in this country over the centuries that happened without ever asking the tribes what they thought about it or getting their input,” Haaland said. “Now, tribal consultation is real, it’s robust, it’s happening across the President’s administration.”

The Klamath River restoration will result in the decommissioning and removal of Iron Gate, plus three other dams along the Oregon-California border. It will open more than 400 miles of free-flowing river and allow the return of salmon that have been cut off from moving upriver since the first dam was constructed in 1912.

During the celebration, Haaland also announced a $5.8 million investment in tribal water projects in the Klamath River Basin. The funds were allocated from the Bureau of Reclamation to be used to restore aquatic ecosystems, improve habitat, and mitigate drought.

Grants were awarded through Reclamation’s Native American Affairs Technical Assistance to Tribes Program to the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa Valley and Klamath Tribes, all of whom are deeply invested in restoration efforts and salmon returning to the Klamath River and Upper Klamath Basin.

“My dream is to not only bring the salmon back, but bring back a way of life; to restore that culture,” said Karuk Tribal Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery.

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Erik Neumann
Iron Gate Dam is one of four dams that will be removed on the Klamath River in 2023 and 2024.

Efforts to remove the hydroelectric dams have been underway for nearly two decades. In November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the license surrender of the dams, which began the decommissioning process.

“It was difficult to get here,” said former Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, who served under the Obama administration starting in 2013, and who was also involved in efforts to remove the dams. According to Jewel, more has been learned about the impact of dams over the years.

“While it was considered free energy, the reality is nothing is simple and nothing is free,” she said. “There are consequences.”

The first of the four dams, Copco 2, could be removed as soon as June, 2023. The remaining three are planned to come out in 2024.

Haaland called Thursday’s event a milestone and the culmination of two decades of efforts to restore the river and the fishery that Indigenous tribes have relied upon.

“We are committed to protecting this special place for decades to come, so that future generations will know the same abundance and beauty of the Klamath River Basin as all of your ancestors did,” Haaland said.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.