Richmond Times-Dispatch

Deal revives plan for largest U. S. dam demolition to save salmon

Oregon, California would partner with nonprofit on project


PORTLAND, Ore.— An agreement announced last week paves the way for the largest dam demolition in U.S. history, a project that promises to reopen hundreds of miles of waterway along the Oregon-California line to salmon that are critical to tribes but have dwindled to almost nothing in recent years.

If approved, the deal would revive plans to remove four massive hydroelect­ric dams on the lower Klamath River, creating the foundation for the most ambitious salmon restoratio­n effort in history. The project on California’s second-largest river would be at the vanguard of a trend toward dam demolition­s in the U.S. as the structures age and become less economical­ly viable amid growing environmen­tal concerns about the health of native fish.

Previous efforts to address problems in the Klamath Basin have fallen apart amid years of legal sparring that generated distrust among tribes, fishing groups, farmers and environmen­talists. Opponents of dam removal worry about their property values and the loss of a water source for fighting wildfires. Lawsuits challengin­g the agreement are possible.

“This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down. It’s a new day and a new era,” said Yurok Tribe chairman Joseph James. “Tome, this is who we are, to have a freeflowin­g river just as those who have come before us. ... Our way of life will thrive with these dams being out.”

A half-dozen tribes across Oregon and California, fishing groups and environmen­talists had hoped to see demolition work begin as soon as 2022.

But those plans stalled in July, when U.S. regulators questioned whether the nonprofit entity

formed to oversee the project could adequately respond to any cost overruns or accidents.

The new plan makes Oregon and California equal partners in the demolition with the nonprofit entity, called the Klamath River Renewal Corp., and adds $45 million to the project’s $450 million budget to ease those concerns. Oregon, California and the utility PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelect­ric dams and is owned by billionair­e Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, will each provide one-third of the additional funds.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must approve the deal. If accepted, it would allow PacifiCorp and Berkshire Hathaway to walk away from aging dams that are more of an albatross than a profit-generator, while addressing regulators’ concerns. Oregon, California and the nonprofit would jointly take over the hydroelect­ric license from PacifiCorp while the nonprofit will oversee the work.

Buffett said the reworked

deal solves a “very complex challenge.”

“I recognize the importance of Klamath dam removal and river restoratio­n for tribal people in the Klamath Basin,” Buffett said in a statement. “We appreciate and respect our tribal partners for their collaborat­ion in forging an agreement that delivers an exceptiona­l outcome for the river, as well as future generation­s.”

Removed would be the four southernmo­st dams in a string of six constructe­d in southern Oregon and far Northern California beginning in 1918.

They were built solely for power generation. They are not used for irrigation and not managed for flood control. The lowest dam on the river, the IronGate, has no “fish ladder,” or concrete chutes that fish can pass through.

That’s blocked hundreds of miles of potential fish habitat and spawning grounds, and fish population­s have dropped precipitou­sly in recent years. Salmon are at the heart of the culture, beliefs and diet of a half-dozen re

gional tribes, including the Yurok and Karuk— both parties to the agreement— and they have suffered deeply from that loss.

Coho salmon from the Klamath River are listed as threatened under federal and California law, and their population in the river has fallen anywhere from 52% to 95%. Spring chinook salmon, once the Klamath Basin’s largest run, has dwindled by 98%.

Fall chinook, the last to persist in any significan­t numbers, have been some ager in the past few years that the Yurok canceled fishing for the first time in the tribe’s memory. In 2017, they bought fish at a grocery store for their annual salmon festival.

“It is bleak, but I want to have hope that with dam removal and with all the prayers that we’ve been sending up all these years, salmon could come back. If we just give them a chance, they will,” said Chook-Chook Hillman, a Karuk tribal member fighting for dam removal. “If you provide a good place for salmon, they’ll always come home.”

PacifiCorp has been operating the dams under an extension of its expired hydroelect­ric license for years. The license was originally granted before modern environmen­tal laws, and renewing it would mean costly renovation­s to install fish ladders. The utility has said energy generated by the dams no longer makes up a significan­t part of its portfolio.

In the original deal, PacifiCorp was to transfer its license and contribute $200 million to bow out of the removal project and avoid further costs and liability. An additional $250 million comes from a voter-approved California water bond.

U.S. regulators, however, agreed only on the condition that PacifiCorp remain a co-licensee along with the Klamath River Renewal Corp.— a nonstarter for the utility.

Residents have been caught in the middle. As tribes watched salmon dwindle, some homeowners around a huge reservoir created by one of the dams slated for removal have sued to stop the demolition.

They say their waterfront property values have already fallen by half because of news coverage associated with demolition, and they worry about losing a water source for fighting wildfires in an increasing­ly fire-prone landscape. Many also oppose the use of ratepayer funds for the project.

Some Oregon lawmakers said Tuesday that Gov. Kate Brown had violated her constituti­onal authority by authorizin­g the deal without legislativ­e or voter approval.

Farther upstream, farmers who rely on two other dams are watching carefully. The removal of the lower four dams won’t affect them directly, but they worry it could set a precedent for dam removal on the Klamath.

More than 1,720 dams have been dismantled around the U.S. since 2012, according to American Rivers, and 26 states undertook dam removal projects in 2019 alone. The Klamath River project would be the largest such project by far if it proceeds.

 ?? THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? A newdeal promises to revive faltering plans to demolish the Iron Gate Dam(above) and three other hydroelect­ric dams on the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border to save imperiled salmon.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS A newdeal promises to revive faltering plans to demolish the Iron Gate Dam(above) and three other hydroelect­ric dams on the Klamath River along the Oregon-California border to save imperiled salmon.

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