PORTLAND, Oregon. (AP) – An agreement announced Tuesday 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 border to salmon, which is crucial for tribes, but has declined almost to nothing in recent years.
If approved, the deal will revive plans to remove four massive hydroelectric dams in the lower Klamath River, laying the groundwork for the most ambitious salmon recovery effort in history. The project for the second largest river in California will be at the forefront of the trend of dam destruction in the United States as structures age and become less economically viable amid growing environmental concerns about the health of local fish.
Previous efforts to tackle the problems in the Klamath Basin have disintegrated amid years of legal sparring, which has sparked mistrust among tribes, fishing groups, farmers and conservationists, and the new agreement could face more legal challenges. Some state and federal lawmakers have criticized it as a financially irresponsible crime by leaders in Oregon and California.
“This removal of the dam is more than a concrete project that is forthcoming. This is a new day and a new era, “said Yurok President Joseph James. “For us, this is us, to have a free-flowing river just like those who came before us. … Our way of life will flourish with the release of these dams. “
Half a dozen tribes in Oregon and California, fishing groups and conservationists had hoped to begin demolition work as early as 2022. But those plans came to a halt in July when U.S. regulators questioned whether the non-profit organization formed to oversee the project can adequately respond to cost overruns or accidents.
The new plan makes Oregon and California equal partners in the demolition with a nonprofit called Klamath River Renewal Corporation, and adds $ 45 million to the project̵
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must approve the deal. If adopted, this will allow PacifiCorp and Berkshire Hathaway to move away from aging dams, which are albatross rather than generating profits, while addressing regulatory concerns. Oregon, California and the nonprofit will jointly take over the hydropower license from PacifiCorp, while the nonprofit will oversee the operation.
Buffett said the revised deal solves a “very complex challenge.”
“I recognize the importance of removing the Klamath Dam and restoring the rivers for the tribal people in the Klamath Basin,” Buffett said in a statement. “We value and respect our tribal partners for their cooperation in creating an agreement that delivers exceptional results for the river as well as for future generations.”
The four southernmost dams in a series of six, built in southern Oregon and faraway northern California beginning in 1918, will be removed.
They are built solely for the production of electricity. They are not used for irrigation and are not managed for flood control. The lowest dam on the river, the Iron Gates, has no “fish ladder” or concrete gutters through which the fish can pass.
This has blocked hundreds of miles of potential habitat and spawning grounds, and fish populations have declined sharply in recent years. Salmon is at the heart of the culture, beliefs and diet of half a dozen regional tribes, including the Yurok and Karuk – both parties to the agreement – and they have suffered deeply from this loss.
Koho salmon from the Klamath River are listed as endangered by federal and California law, and their population in the river has dropped somewhere from 52% to 95%. Spring Chinook salmon, once the largest mileage in the Klamath Basin, has fallen by 98%.
The autumn chinook, the last to remain in significant numbers, has been so scarce in the last few years that the Yurok has abolished 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’s gloomy, but I want to hope that with the removal of the dam and all the prayers we’ve been saying all these years, the salmon can come back. If we just give them a chance, they will, “said Chok-Hook Hillman, a member of the Karuk tribe who is fighting to remove the dam. “If you provide a good place for the salmon, they will always go home.”
PacifiCorp has been operating the dams for years of its hydroelectric license. The license was originally issued before modern environmental laws, and renewing it would mean expensive repairs to install fish ladders. The company said the energy generated by the dams is no longer a significant part of its portfolio.
In the original deal, PacifiCorp had to transfer its license and deposit $ 200 million to pay homage to the removal project and avoid additional costs and liability. An additional $ 250 million comes from a voter-approved water bond in California.
However, US regulators agreed only on the condition that PacifiCorp would remain a co-owner with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation – indispensable for the company.
Residents are caught in the middle. As tribes watch the salmon shrink, some homeowners around a huge reservoir created by one of the dams have filed a lawsuit to stop the destruction.
They say the value of their properties on the coast has already halved due to news coverage of the demolition, and they are worried about losing a water source to fight forest fires in an increasingly fire-prone landscape. Many also oppose the use of interest funds for the project.
U.S. Representative Doug LaMalfa, a California Republican, said the agreement puts taxpayers in both states on the hook. Some Oregon lawmakers said Gov. Kate Brown violated her constitutional powers by allowing the deal without legislative or electoral approval.
In addition, upstream farmers who rely on two other dams are watching closely. The removal of the lower four dams will not directly affect them, but they are worried that it could set a precedent for the removal of the Klamath Dam.
More than 1,720 dams have been dismantled in the United States since 2012, according to American Rivers, and 26 states have embarked on projects to remove dams in 2019. The Klamath River project will be the largest such project to date if continued.