The Klamath dams are coming down

Today, FERC ordered PacifiCorp to surrender the dam license, the final hurdle after 20 years of studies and advocacy.

 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington, D.C., held a final vote Thursday to decide on the removal of four dams on the lower Klamath River. The vote, which follows the agency’s final environmental impact statement in late August, was unanimous in favor of removal.

After a grueling 20 years of environmental impact statements, scientific studies, negotiations with stakeholders and advocacy from the tribes and their conservationist allies — people who, as Hoopa Valley Tribe Chairman Joe Davis said, “poured their blood, sweat and tears into making this happen” — the vote is the final green light everyone’s been waiting for. With FERC’s laborious approval process now concluded, dam removal can begin, launching what is expected to be the biggest river restoration project in U.S. history.

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” said Joseph James, the chairman of the Yurok Tribe, in a statement. “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.”

JC Boyle Dam, one of the Klamath’s four lowermost dams that is slated for removal.
Paul Robert Wolf Wilson

What FERC’s approval means 

The next legal steps are largely technical. As a result of the vote, FERC is ordering the surrender of the Lower Klamath Project License, which is currently held by energy company PacifiCorp. That license will be transferred to the entities in charge of dam removal: the states of Oregon and California, and the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit created to oversee dam removal that is made up of tribal, state and conservation group representatives.

FERC’s final environmental impact statement, issued in August, set the stage for todays vote by acknowledging that the only practical path to saving the Klamath’s salmon is the removal of the four lowermost dams: COPCO 1, COPCO 2, Iron Gate and JC Boyle Dams. PacifiCorp, their owner, had concluded that these outdated, inefficient hydroelectric dams would be more difficult to update than to remove. The dams don’t provide water for irrigation and are not involved in the conflicts around irrigation water in the upper Klamath Basin. The river’s two uppermost dams, which do provide water for irrigation and which also have fish ladders, will remain in place.

First steps for dam removal 

The salmon won’t return overnight. The first step in dam removal is, counterintuitively, to build roads. Removal requires a lot of heavy machinery and infrastructure, so the first year of the process will be dedicated to getting the dam sites ready for demolition and hauling in necessary equipment.

In early 2024, the reservoirs are scheduled to be drawn down between salmon runs, when the sudden release of toxic algal reservoir water will have the least possible impact on river life. In mid-2024, demolition will begin with COPCO 2, the smallest dam, slated as the first to come down. By October 2024, the pathway should be open for the salmon’s return.

Dam removal always brings surprises, but the far-reaching ecological benefits seem to consistently outperform expectations. Tribes and conservationists are looking forward to seeing how the Klamath responds.

“Water and fish health are at the heart of our identity as Native People, and we are looking forward to seeing a healthier watershed and fishery, which will result in healthier communities for all Klamath Basin tribes,” said Chairman Davis. “Now we must keep the momentum going and we are looking forward to working with all of our neighbors and partners in that effort.”

This is a big win for healthy rivers

Removal of the four lower dams will give endangered salmon and other anadromous fish access to around 400 miles of spawning habitat that’s been locked away since 1918, when the California Oregon Power Company (COPCO, now PacifiCorp) split the basin in half by building COPCO 1 dam. Although on paper FERC is ordering PacifiCorp to surrender the dam license, the energy company has become a willing participant in the push for dam removal.

“Today’s victory was well-earned by the thousands of people who fought for clean water, healthy fisheries and environmental justice for Klamath River communities,” said Russell “Buster” Attebery, chairman of the Káruk Tribe. “I am grateful to everyone, from the youth to the elders, Govs. Newsom and Brown, and the team from PacifiCorp who made this victory possible.”

“Today’s victory was well-earned by the thousands of people who fought for clean water, healthy fisheries and environmental justice for Klamath River communities.”

Klamath river salmon have continually faced life-threatening challenges, including the 2002 fish kill that triggered the removal campaign, a 2021 disease outbreak that killed 70% of juvenile salmon in the river, and a 2022 combination of wildfire, thunderstorms and landslides that suffocated a 50-mile stretch of river, killing virtually everything in it. All along, dams have exacerbated disasters by escalating water warming, algal blooms and stagnation, helping to spread disease and depriving the lower basin of sediment and cool, fresh water from the upper tributaries. 

In the upper basin, where the Klamath reaches into southern Oregon, the Klamath Tribes say they’re eager for salmon to return. “Our people have been without c’iyaals (salmon) for over a century,” said Klamath Tribes Chairman Clayton Dumont. “We welcome the fish home to the upper Klamath Basin with open arms.”

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.  

Follow @[email protected]

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.