Feds Approve Largest Dam Deconstruction Project in U.S. History

An aerial photo shows a toxic algae bloom above one of the four Klamath River dams slated for removal. EcoFlight

A federal energy board has unanimously approved a dam removal project that could restore hundreds of miles of salmon and steelhead habitat in the Pacific Northwest. The move green lights the demolition of four dams spread out along a remote stretch of the Klamath River on the border of Oregon and California. Once complete, it would be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in U.S. history.

The decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to surrender federal licensing on the four dams comes after decades of advocacy work by the various indigenous tribes (who call the Klamath River Basin home), local and state governments, and a coalition of conservation and environmental groups. “The Klamath salmon are coming home,” Chairman of the Yurok Tribe said in a statement after the 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.”

The dam decommissioning was supported by PacifiCorp—the utility company that relies on the four structures for about two percent of its overall power generation. The company, which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, said it will contribute up to $200 million toward the cost of demolition. Another $250 million will come from a California voter-approved water bond, according to NPR.

“Multiple environmental reviews by state and federal resource agencies over the past two decades have all reached the same conclusion: Removing these dams is the single biggest thing we can do to restore the Klamath River’s legendary fisheries,” Brian Johnson, California Director of Trout Unlimited, said in a press release. “We salute FERC’s carefully considered review and approval of the plan. And we honor the enduring commitment of our partners to this long campaign, especially the Yurok Tribe, the Karuk Tribe, and the Klamath Tribes. It’s finally time to ‘bring the salmon home’.”

According to TU, the dams are outdated and don’t produce the type of hydro-electricity that they did in their hay day. They also impair water quality and completely block access to some 400 miles of vital spawning and rearing habitat for anadromous fish like coho and chinook salmon and steelhead trout. That blocked access has contributed to precipitous declines in all of the aforementioned species, the organization says.

Read Next: Meet the Hunters and Anglers Fighting to Save the Klamath River Basin

Three of the dams now slated for removal sit on the California side of the Klamath, and one is in Oregon. Before dam construction, more than a century ago, the Lower Klamath Basin was the third most productive watershed for salmon and steelhead on the entire West Coast. “The Klamath River has been Exhibit A for how dams, drought, imbalanced water management, and climate change can strangle a river,” said the director of the Oregon Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Chrysten Rivard. “Now, the Klamath is poised to become a prime example of how an entire river system, and the people and wildlife that depend on it, can be renewed.”

The first dam could be removed as early as this summer, while the remaining four would be drawn down starting in early 2024. If brought to fruition, the removal project will allow the Lower Klamath to return to its natural, free-flowing state for the first time in over 100 years. 

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