Tribal Economies

A “critical step” | New

The Klamath River and the tribal communities that depend on it received good news this week as what would be the largest dam removal project in US 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 banks of the river, federal regulators on August 26 issued a final statement of environmental impact for plans to remove four major dams on the Klamath River. , recommending that the nearly $500 million project go ahead. In the document, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) staff recommend that the commission approve the dismantling and removal of the dams, saying it would “provide benefits to water quality, aquatic resources, fishing and land resources” used by the tribes of the region.

The commission is expected to make a final decision on the project later this year, with Klamath River Renewal Corporation – a non-profit organization set up to oversee the removal of the dam – hoping to begin dismantling work soon after. , with the removal of the dam to follow in 2024.

“We can see the light at the end of the dam removal tunnel,” Karuk Tribe Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery said in a statement.

The official staff recommendation to approve the removal of four hydroelectric dams that for decades cut off hundreds of kilometers of spawning habitat and degraded water quality as salmon populations in the watershed dropped represents a monumental step forward. It is also the direct result of decades of advocacy, organizing and negotiation primarily led by the Karuk and Yurok tribes, whose cultures, diets and economies have been intertwined with the river and its salmon for centuries. immemorial.

After all, it was a FERC decision in 2020 that derailed the 2016 iteration of the dam removal agreement, itself a resuscitation of a more ambitious deal struck six years earlier. But after FERC discovered in 2020 that the dam’s owner, PacifiCorp, could not simply transfer the dams’ licenses to a new nonprofit and absolve itself of liability, the river tribes redoubled their efforts to the search for a solution. Karuk and Yurok officials, along with an extensive grassroots advocacy campaign, worked to bring Berkshire Hathaway, the parent company of billionaire Warren Buffet’s PacifiCorp, to the negotiating table, making the removal of the dam both a matter of social justice and a financially logical decision for the company. (“River People Fight”, March 4, 2021).

In November, stakeholders announced a new agreement in which the states of California and Oregon agreed to sign as co-licensees with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation through the deletion process and Berkshire Hathaway agreed to share any additional liability or cost overruns.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham, who played a key role in negotiation efforts with Berkshire Hathaway last year, released a statement praising FERC for releasing the environmental document. final earlier than expected and “validated” the removal of the dam as the right thing to do.

“As 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 United States history and the restoration of 400 miles of the river. Klamath to benefit salmon, tribes and basin communities,” Bonham said.

Also last week, the federal government announced $26 million in funding for Klamath Basin restoration projects as part of the $1.4 billion bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Joseph Biden l ‘last year. Specifically, North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman indicated that $16 million of new funds will go to ecosystem restoration projects in the basin, with the other $10 million going to the expansion of Klamath Falls National Hatchery. Additionally, Huffman said the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will award grants totaling nearly $3 million for fish and wildlife habitat improvement projects as part of Klamath River Coho Restoration and Trinity River Restoration grant programs.

In a statement, Huffman said he had spent years organizing forums and hearings to highlight the consequences of the climate crisis and the mismanagement of the Klamath River, while working to find solutions.

“It’s 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 greatest basin restoration opportunities: dam removal. By ensuring the river is ready for restoration once the dams are released, we can ensure that the project will be as efficient as possible.”

While the combined $29 million in federal funds represents the largest restoration investment in the basin in recent memory — if 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 called for more than $400 million in federal spending on fishery restoration, reintroduction and monitoring over a 15-year period, but that was dependent on congressional approval and is died when Republicans took control of the House just months after the deal. was hit.

But it’s also clear that 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, as well as numerous non-profit advocacy groups, salmon runs from the Klamath River have declined to less than 5% of their historic number. Earlier this year, the Karuk Tribe found good news when their annual spring Chinook count found 290 wild fish in spawning grounds 95 miles up the river – a significant improvement from the year’s count of 90. last. But the celebrations were short-lived.

Shortly after the count was finalized, a flash flood hit the scorch scar from the McKinney Fire, sending ash, silt and debris into the South Fork Salmon River, causing levels to plummet. dissolved oxygen from the river, creating a “kill zone” several kilometers long. ” in the Klamath River which choked thousands of fish.

“It’s so painful to see,” Karuk Tribal Council member Troy Hockaday said in a press release. “I worry more every day that my children and grandchildren will not have the opportunity to harvest fish for their families. Salmon have been part of our livelihood, our culture and our ceremonies for thousands of years. . It can’t stop there.”

Tribal officials and biologists have long argued that removing the dams is a crucial step toward restoring once-abundant salmon populations.

With FERC approval expected later this year, the removal plans would require the reservoirs behind the four dams – Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and JC Boyle – to be pulled with the dams still intact in the middle of the dam. winter, when the river is flowing at its maximum, to give sediments accumulated in the reservoirs the best chance of being flushed out to the ocean. Then the physical removal of the dam would begin in the spring and continue through the summer.

Following the August 26 release of FERC’s final environmental review, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation announced that it expects dam removal activity to begin this year and be completed in 2024, ” with the return of the river to a free-flowing state”.

For the Karuk and Yurok tribes who have fought to make this a reality for decades, it can’t happen soon enough.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the editor of the Journal. Contact him at 442-1400, ext. 321, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.