A historic milestone this morning: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that oversees hydropower dams across the country, agreed to delicense four outdated hydropower dams along the middle stretch of the Klamath River, allowing for their removal to proceed.
The move comes 20 years after the Klamath Fish Kill, in which as many as 70,000 Klamath River salmon washed up dead on the banks of the river, killed by a disease that flourished in poor river conditions.
In the 20 years since, there have been immense efforts — sometimes combative, sometimes cooperative — among local tribes, farmers, local governments, state governments and others to figure out how to improve the health of the river. The removal of the four dams in the lower part of the river was a big piece of that — water behind the dams heats up in the summer and becomes more amenable to algal blooms, both of which are detrimental to fish health.
There are still plenty of issues left to work out on the Klamath — the number one being the proper division of water between upstream agricultural interests and the health of the ecosystem itself, in a time of drought and climate change. But FERC’s decision today means that work on removal of those four barriers to fish health can begin quite soon.
In his prepared remarks this morning, FERC’s chairman, Richard Glick, rhetorically asked why the commission would be giving up a zero-emissions source of energy at a time when the country is desperately working toward a decarbonized future. His answer: The commission is finally, belatedly, recognizing other sorts of environmental impacts, and especially is becoming aware of who is being impacted.
“A number of years back, I don’t think the commission necessarily spent a lot of time thinking about the impact of our decision on tribes, and I think that’s a very important element that’s in today’s order, and a number of orders recently. I think we’re making progress on that front,” Glick said.
The dams’ owner — the Warren Buffett-owned company PacifiCorp — was part of the discussions that led up to this moment, and does not object to the dams’ removal.
We’re certain plenty of local tribes and other local governmental agencies will have lots to say about this long-awaited decision. We’ll add their statements below Congressman Jared Huffman’s, which arrived shortly after the decision.
Press release from Congressman Jared Huffman:
Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) applauded the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) decision today to issue a license surrender order that clears the way for removal of four Klamath River dams and the largest river restoration effort in history.
“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. “Poor conditions on the Klamath River have caused substantial harm to tribal communities, commercial and sport fishermen, and the economies of California and Oregon. We know other dam removal projects in the West have seen dramatic beneficial responses for fisheries and wildlife, and the Klamath River has tremendous potential to recover and rebuild as this work is done. Congratulations to all of those who have worked to right this wrong and restore balance to the river.”
The order allows the Klamath River Renewal Corporation – a non-profit group that will lead the dam removal effort – and the states of California and Oregon to take over PacifiCorp’s license for the purpose of demolishing the dams. Construction crews will begin preparing the area for dam removal in early 2023 and will remove the Copco 2 dam next year. The remaining dams will be removed all in 2024.
The dams have for decades blocked salmon from reaching hundreds of miles of productive salmon habitat. The shallow reservoirs regularly become choked with toxic algae and cause elevated temperatures downstream. Impaired flows have led to an abundance of disease that often kills most young salmon in the river. Removal of the dams is expected to vastly improve water quality, reduce the presence of fish disease, and reopen vital spawning habitat.
Rep. Huffman has been an active partner in the efforts to remove the Klamath River dams. Following signs in July 2020 that PacifiCorp may walk back its commitment to dam removal, Rep. Huffman, Chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, held a public forum to examine the terrible impacts the dams have had on salmon and downstream water quality. In September of that year, he successfully offered an amendment to the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act, which was approved by the House, to safeguard Tribal communities against further harm to the Klamath River and its ecosystem caused by PacifiCorp’s delays.
Joint statement from numerous Klamath basin tribes, environmental organizations and fishermen:
Today the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a License Surrender Order for the Lower Klamath River Hydroelectric Project. This clears the last major hurdle necessary to implement the world’s largest river restoration project – removal of the lower four Klamath River dams. With this order in place, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the non-profit entity created to oversee Klamath River dam removal and related restoration activities, and the States of Oregon and California can accept transfer of the Lower Klamath Project License from energy company PacifiCorp and start the dam removal process early next year.
“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” proclaimed Yurok Chairman Joseph James. “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 removal and river restoration project was made possible through a negotiated agreement between Karuk Tribe, Yurok Tribe, California, Oregon, conservation organizations, commercial fishing organizations, and dam owner PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy. Today’s action by FERC is the last step in a six-year FERC regulatory oversight process that ensures dam removal is the most beneficial course of action to restore the Klamath River’s flagging salmon runs and improve poor water quality.
“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 Karuk Chairman Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery. “I am grateful to everyone, from the youth to the elders, Governors Newsom and Brown, and the team from PacifiCorp who made this victory possible.”
“Congratulations to all those who poured their blood, sweat and tears into making this happen. 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 Hoopa Valley Tribe Chairman Joe 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.”
Commercial salmon fishing families along the West Coast are also celebrating. “Restoring the Klamath gives our struggling salmon fishing industry a chance to survive,” said Vivian Hilliwell, a former commercial salmon harvester and now the Watershed Conservation Director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). “The possibility of revitalized Klamath fish runs gives us hope that we can continue our tradition of bringing healthy wild salmon to dinner tables across America.”
Dam removal activities are expected to begin in 2023 and be completed in 2024. Personnel and equipment will be deployed in early 2023 to commence pre-removal construction, including road and bridge improvements. Copco 2 dam will be removed first, and deconstruction of the remaining three dams will occur essentially at the same time in early 2024. All four dams will be removed by the end of 2024.
Upstream of the dams, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon are anxious to see salmon return. “Our people have been without c’iyaals (salmon) for over a century. We welcome the fish home to the Upper Klamath Basin with open arms,” said Klamath Tribes Chairman Clayton Dumont.
In issuing the Final License Surrender Order, FERC Commission Chairman Richard Glick stated, “Dam removal makes sense in large part due to fish and wildlife protections. But there is a discussion in the order on the impact on Tribes and the ability to have their traditions and cultural practices improved… I think it’s a very important issue. A number of years back the commission did not think about the impact of our decisions on Tribes. That’s an important element in today’s order…”
The decision comes almost exactly 20 years after a catastrophic fish kill left over 70,000 adult salmon dead along the banks of the Klamath River before they could spawn. That disaster galvanized the collective will of Klamath River Tribes, community members, fishermen, conservationists, and others who launched a two-decades-long effort to un-dam the Klamath and Bring the Salmon Home.
“After the 2002 Fish Kill we committed ourselves to defending our river and our cultures no matter what it would take,” said Molli Myers, co-founder of the Klamath Justice Coalition and member of the Karuk Tribe. “That kind of extraordinary commitment by ordinary Indians is what led to this victory.”
Today’s Klamath River salmon returns are less than 5% of their historical abundance with some runs of salmon completely extirpated from the system. Dams deny salmon access to hundreds of miles of historical habitat, degrade water quality, and foster the spread of fish diseases. Scientific studies and dam removal efforts in other watersheds demonstrate that dam removal can reverse these trends.
“This is a historic day for the Tribes of the Klamath River and for Indigenous People all over the world. When we act together with a unified voice no power in this universe can stop us,” said Ridges to Riffles Indigenous Conservation Group Principal and Yurok Tribal member Amy Cordalis.
Representatives from additional organizations that advocated for Klamath dam removal also commented on today’s significant action by FERC.
“Restoring the Klamath River is a historic win for people, salmon, and everything that depends on a clean, healthy river. It demonstrates the power of persistence and collaboration. When people come together around a vision for their river, it really is possible to change the world.” – Brian Graber, Senior Director of River Restoration, American Rivers
“Dam removal represents a monumental achievement. As we look beyond this historic moment, Sustainable Northwest will continue partnering in the Klamath basin to build on this success to improve water quality and meet water demands that support Tribes, farmers, ranchers, and native wildlife.” – Greg Block, President, Sustainable Northwest
“I inherited the responsibility to take care of my relatives, the salmon, from my father. While I have spent most of my life as an activist at protests and rallies, my hope is for my children to spend more time fishing and less time protesting.” - Save California Salmon Education Director Charley Reed, who was seven years old when with the Klamath fish kill set the Bring the Salmon Home movement in motion.
“It feels like a lifetime ago that we started working on this momentous effort together. It became clear early on in our efforts to protect and restore the wild Spring Chinook of the Salmon River that the Klamath dams would have to come down in order to realize that dream. With partners around the basin, we have been working towards that goal for over 20 years and now, finally, we’re going to take down the Iron Gate Dam and let those fish run through!” - Petey Brucker, Salmon River Restoration Council’s co-founder who was involved in dam removal negotiations from their inception.
“The Klamath River has been Exhibit A for how dams, drought, imbalanced water management and climate change can strangle a river. 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 major investments TU and others have made in improving water quality, fish passage and habitat in the upper Klamath Basin will soon pay their full dividends, as salmon and steelhead finally come back to their ancestral spawning grounds. We salute the Tribal, state, and federal leaders who have helped make this happen, and PacifiCorp and the KRRC for their commitment to bringing the Klamath back to life.” – Chrysten Rivard, Director, Trout Unlimited’s Oregon Program
“The removal of these dams begins the Klamath’s recovery from a century of dam-related impacts. We look forward to the many ways that people will experience the renewed Klamath, including the 41 miles of new whitewater river that will emerge when the dams come down.” – Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director, American Whitewater
“It’s been incredible for CalTrout to join forces with over 40 organizations and Native American Tribes in support of taking the Klamath dams out. Tribal leadership has been a central component of this effort. The Yurok, Karuk and Klamath River Tribes have led the effort to restore part of their cultural heritage and subsistence fishing for salmon and lamprey. With the Klamath River being the second largest river in California, it represents a huge opportunity to achieve native wild salmon and steelhead abundance in a way that we haven’t seen for many decades.” – Curtis Knight, Executive Director of California Trout
Press release from the Klamath River Renewal Corporation:
Today, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) unanimously approved the surrender of the Lower Klamath Project License and the decommissioning of the four hydroelectric dams in the Lower Klamath Project. The License Surrender Order is the final decision by FERC on the Klamath River Renewal project. The License Surrender Order is the action that allows the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) to decommission and remove the four hydroelectric dams and implement related restoration activities.
“KRRC is very pleased by the Commission’s decision today,” said Mark Bransom, Chief Executive Officer of KRRC, “This important milestone reflects decades of collective work by the many dedicated Signatories of the Amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement to restore the Klamath River and we are prepared to begin the largest dam removal and river restoration effort in U.S. history.”
The decommissioning process will start once the KRRC and the States of Oregon and California review terms and conditions of the surrender, and accept the June 2021 License Transfer Order, which will transfer ownership of the dams from PacifiCorp to KRRC and the States. The parties expect to accept the Transfer Order within 30 days of today’s License Surrender Order.
“Today’s action by FERC paves the way for revitalization and restoration of the Klamath Basin. Dam removal is the first step in healing of the Klamath River and all Klamath Tribal communities,” said Amy Cordalis, KRRC Board member appointed by the Yurok Tribe.
Wendy Ferris-George, KRRC Board member appointed by the Karuk Tribe said, “Dam removal is imminent. We deeply appreciate the many Tribal people who have dedicated their lives to bring balance to the Klamath River and their communities.”
Following the acceptance of License Transfer, KRRC plans to begin dam removal activities in 2023 and be completed in 2024, with the return of the river to a free-flowing condition through the project reach. Personnel and equipment will be deployed in early 2023 to commence pre-removal construction, including infrastructure improvements and modifications to the dams. Reservoir drawdown and dam removal is expected to begin in January 2024, with restoration activities commencing immediately following dam removal. Restoration of the project footprint will continue for several years.
Dam removal is the first crucial step to restore the health of the Klamath River and the communities that depend upon it. The revitalization of the Basin will help local communities thrive, by creating a more robust regional economy and providing lasting environment benefits. KRRC is pleased to be part of a cooperative effort to re-establish the natural vitality of the Klamath River and help strengthen the entire Basin for the future.
“This is an incredibly important moment and I want to acknowledge and thank our many partners, and particularly our tribal partners, for their enormous efforts and strong collaboration to get us to the point of restoring the Klamath River so that it can support communities in the Basin for generations to come,” said Brian Johnson, President of the KRRC Board.
The License Surrender Order can be viewed here.
Additional information about the Klamath dam removal project can be viewed here.