A federal regulator overseeing hydroelectric dams in the United States has reached a landmark decision to remove four older, problematic dams on the lower Klamath River in Northern California.
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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decision would allow the dams to be decommissioned and removed to allow salmon to reach their natural spawning grounds hundreds of miles upstream. It highlighted a victory for local Native American tribes and environmentalist groups after decades of coordinated efforts.
This dam demolition project, at the cost of 500 million U.S. dollars, would be the world's largest dam removal and river restoration project.
"The Klamath salmon are coming home," proclaimed Yurok Chairman Joseph James after Thursday's vote. "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."
Yurok, an Indigenous people from along the Klamath River and Pacific coast with about 7,000 members, have fished along the Klamath River for thousands of years along with the Hupa, Karuk and Klamath tribes.
By the 1870s, the population of all Indigenous peoples on the Klamath had declined by 75 percent due to violence or disease triggered by uncontrolled logging and mining by the settlers during the California Gold Rush. Their populations were further reduced after the forced removal of children to Indian boarding schools.
The Yurok lost their rights to fish in the 1930s. When the fourth dam was finally built in the 1960s, salmon in the river was nearly completely extinct.
The Klamath, once the third-largest salmon river on the West Coast, combined with its watershed, covers 14,500 square miles (37,500 square km), stretching from Oregon to California.
However, starting in 1918, with the last built in 1968, man-made dams sliced the river into two halves, effectively cutting salmon off from their spawning grounds and decimating their populations. This destroyed traditional fishing grounds for Native Americans, commercial fisheries and wildlife dependent on fish to live.
The dams also reduced water quality by causing stagnation and toxic algae blooms and increased water temperatures and the spread of diseases afflicting fish and other water-based life. Studies show that removing the dams can reverse these adverse effects and restore salmon populations.
FERC's decision was reached nearly two decades after the Kalamath dams caused a catastrophic environmental imbalance in 2002 that killed an estimated 70,000 salmon before they could spawn, decimating the salmon population virtually overnight.
That manufactured crisis brought together an unlikely group of vocal opponents united in their determination to un-dam the Klamath River, including not just Klamath River Tribes and conservationists but commercial fishermen and community groups.
The group finally reached its goal two decades later.
"After the 2002 Fish Kill we committed ourselves to defending our river and our cultures no matter what it would take," Molli Myers, member of the Karuk Tribe and co-founder of the Klamath Justice Coalition, told local Lost Coast Outpost newspaper, "That kind of extraordinary commitment by ordinary Indians is what led to this victory."
"FERC's decision to retire PacifiCorp's dams is the result of years of difficult work by our dedicated North Coast tribes, conservationists, the leadership of California and Oregon, and members of Congress," said Rep Huffman, Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, and an active supporter of the dams' removal.
Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers, was quoted by the Lost Coast Outpost as saying that the vote comes at a critical time when human-caused climate change is hammering the Western United States with devastating droughts.
He explained that allowing California's second-largest river to flow without artificial obstructions and its flood plains and wetlands to function naturally would reduce or even do away with those negative impacts.
"The best way of managing increasing floods and droughts is to allow the river system to be healthy and do its thing," Kiernan said. ■