Four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River will be torn down, making way for improved fishing and restoration of the region’s legendary salmon runs
By Robert Deen
Sport fishing advocates, environmentalists and Native American tribes celebrated the historic and unexpected announcement of an unprecedented dam removal project on the Klamath River. The Klamath, first dammed 115 years ago, runs from the high desert of eastern Oregon to the Northern California coast. The salmon run was once one of the largest on the west coast, has been anemic for years, but with the dams gone salmon will be able to reach their favored spawning grounds for the first time in nearly a century. While a full recovery would take years, hopes are high that we’ll eventually see a salmon run like there hasn’t been in decades.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell described the agreement as creating “a path forward for the largest river restoration in the history of the United States,” along with “the largest dam removal project in the history of our nation.”
In all there are four dams scheduled for removal. Three are in California – Copco 1, Copco 2 and the Iron Gate Dam—and one is in Oregon, the John C. Boyle Dam. In total the removals should open up 240 miles of new salmon habitat.
PacifiCorp, the Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary that owns the dams, has worked out a deal with the federal government that caps the corporation’s costs for removal at $200 million, which will be paid for by PacificCorp customers in California and Oregon. California taxpayers will pay an additional $250 million of the project’s estimated $450 million price tag. PacifiCorp will transfer ownership of the dams to a nonprofit corporation recently created in California, which will petition the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approval to tear them down beginning in 2020.
Brian Johnson, California director for Trout Unlimited and advocate for dam removal, was present at the signing of the agreement. “The Klamath River is already one of the greatest steelhead rivers in the country, and this is the biggest single thing that can be done to make steelhead fishing better,” he said.
The Klamath River’s runs of spring and fall Chinook salmon haven’t been formally declared endangered, but have been struggling for years. Since 1997 the Klamath River run of Coho salmon has been listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. This year’s salmon runs are expected to hit historic lows.
“We see removal of these dams as the single biggest act of restoration that can be carried out on the Klamath,” said Craig Tucker, natural resources policy advocate for the 4,000-member Karuk Tribe of California. “I would assert that it’s the biggest salmon restoration project in U.S. history.”
The surprise agreement, according to Secretary Jewell, is an effort to bypass congress, which refused to sign off on the agreement last year. PacifiCorp’s license to operate the dams expired in 2006. An earlier agreement to authorize their removal, created in 2010, required congressional approval and expired at the end of 2015 after Congress adjourned without enacting it.