Save the salmon – Klamath River dams coming down

  • Published on April 7th, 2016

By Dan Bacher

(How do we balance the health of an ecosystem with a healthy economy? Sometimes, it makes sense to build dams; sometimes, it makes more sense to take them down and restore the rivers to their natural state… )

The U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce, the States of Oregon and California, the Yurok Tribe, leaping salmon by taomeisterthe Karuk Tribe and PacifiCorp  today convened at Requa at the mouth of the Klamath River to sign an agreement clearing the path for dam removal on the river.

The Amendment to the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), if approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), will initiate the removal of four Klamath River dams and what Interior Secretary Sally Jewel described today as “one of the largest river restoration projects in the history of the U.S.”

Yurok Chairman O’Rourke, Oregon Governor Kathleen Brown, California Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., PacifiCorp President and CEO Stefan Bird, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), non-governmental organizations and other Klamath River tribes participated in the signing event on the Yurok Reservation, located in Northwest California.

“Dam removal is a key element of large-scale fish restoration efforts on the Klamath, and we believe it puts the people of the Klamath Basin back on a path toward lasting prosperity,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr.

“The newly signed dam removal agreement seeks to use existing funding and the same timeline as the original agreement. It is expected to be filed with FERC by July 1, and will be vetted using established, public processes,” according to a news release from the Yurok Tribe.

“The amended KHSA places the states of Oregon and California as lead entities and forms an alternate entity to dismantle the dams by 2020. The plans for the actual removal of the hydroelectric facilities will have to comply with all federal and state regulations associated with large, landscape-altering projects,” the Tribe explained.

Important elements of the Amended KHSA include the following:

• Does not end the FERC process; but changes it from a relicensing procedure to a decommissioning procedure;
• PacifiCorp agrees to transfer title of the dams to a newly formed entity that will then apply for a surrender and decommissioning process with FERC and also take on any liabilities associated with the removal of the dams;
• Does not require any new federal funding or Congressional action or authorizations;
• Adheres to the original KHSA timeline of dam removal in the year 2020;
• Does not suspend or alter any existing environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act or others;
• Does not waive, alter, or terminate any Tribal water or fishing rights.

The Tribe said the state and federal representatives also signed a second pact, the Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement (KPFA), which is “designed to help upper basin irrigators properly prepare for the return of salmon to the upper basin by constructing fish screens as well as other appropriate measures to protect and restore fish populations.” Although the KPFA does not address water issues, it is intended to set the stage for more detailed talks about water, fish restoration, and water quality issues that still need to be solved in the Klamath Basin.

“We’re are fully committed to developing sustainable solutions that work for both fish and farms,” said Yurok Tribal Chairman O’Rourke. Reconnecting salmon, steelhead, and lamprey with more than 300 miles of historic habitat, and ameliorating the water quality problems caused by the dams, is a primary first step in a process to heal the Klamath River and create stability in the basin. .

The Tribe also said, “The KPFA acknowledges that additional actions are required to restore the Klamath Basin’s fisheries, fulfill trust responsibilities to the Tribes, and sustain the region’s farming and ranching industry. Many of these efforts will require federal legislation. The KPFA’s signatories and supporters are committed to working over the coming year with interested Klamath Basin stakeholders to craft complimentary agreements that offer comprehensive solutions to these difficult problems.”

“The Klamath River is our lifeline and it is inextricably linked to the health and welfare of the Yurok people,” Chairman O’Rourke said. “It will be a truly historic day when we see salmon travel from the Klamath’s headwaters to the sea.”

Leaders of the Karuk Tribe also praised the signing of the agreement.

“We believe that taking care of the Klamath River is the responsibility of everyone who lives in the basin,” explained Karuk Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery. “We can’t restore our fishery without working with our neighbors in agriculture and they can’t secure water for their farms without working with us. Dam removal is huge leap forward, but we must continue to work with the agriculture community to solve water conflicts as well.”

“This will be the largest salmon restoration project ever in America,” said Karuk Natural Resources Director Leaf Hillman. “It’s been a long time coming. We are more than ready to welcome the salmon home.”

The Institute for Fisheries Resources, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, American Rivers, California Trout, the Federation of Fly Fishers, Trout Unlimited and the Klamath Riverkeeper released statements applauding the signing of the amended KHSA and Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement.

“The four Klamath Dams slated for removal (which have no fish passage) have been disastrous for west coast salmon fisheries — and salmon-related jobs — over more than 700 miles of Northern California and Oregon coastline,” said Glen Spain, NW Regional Director, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). “Plus, the dams, some more than 100 years old, would cost far more than they would be worth to fix them up to modern standards, and so are functionally and economically obsolete. Although there are many other problems still to address in the Klamath Basin, this landmark Agreement moves the region much further along toward a major river restoration effort that will recapture thousands of lost jobs, bring greater economic stability to the region, and end nearly 100 years of bitter conflict.”

Konrad Fisher, Director, Klamath Riverkeeper, said, “Today we celebrate a milestone for healthy rivers. After a decade-long grassroots campaign led by tribal members from the Klamath River, we overcame the greatest odds and now have an agreement that paves the way for a free flowing Klamath River by 2020.”

“After years of lawsuits, protests, and inaction  and inaction by Congress, we can celebrate a new path toward dam removal which means cleaner water and improved conditions for salmon. The agreement marks a victory for communities that depend on the Klamath River for food, jobs, recreation and cultural survival,” concluded Fisher.

Governor Jerry Brown, who has been widely criticized by Tribes, fishermen and grassroots environmentalists for his California Water Fix to build the Delta Tunnels, his implementation of faux “marine protected areas” under the privately funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative and other controversial environmental policies, said his administration supports Klamath dam removal and river restoration.

“This historic agreement will enable Oregon and California and the interested parties to get these four dams finally removed and the Klamath River restored to its pristine beauty,” said Brown.

After commenting about how Native Americans did “such a good job” of managing natural resources for thousands of years before European settlers arrived, Brown commented, “Europeans screwed up lots of things. Now we’re putting it back together…we’re starting to get it right after 200 years of getting it wrong.”

I have not yet received a response to my email to the Hoopa Valley Tribe requesting a comment on the agreements. The Tribe opposed the previous agreements because they held they violated tribal water rights, and advocated pursuing dam removal through the FERC Section 401 certification process, as is being done now.

“We’re now back at the table and we still are concerned over amendments, including section 1.7 that refers to the Trinity River Restoration Program,” said Ryan Jackson, Chairman of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, at a public meeting that I attended in Sacramento in March. “This agreement shouldn’t impact the Trinity River Restoration Program (TRRP).”  (…)

He and others in the meeting also asked for the removal of Section 1.9 that refers to the KBRA. “The real focus should be dam removal by itself,” he stated.

Jackson and Tribal Self Governance Coordinator Danny Jordan were also concerned about the proposed transfer of ownership of the Trinity River Fish Hatchery, now owned by PacifiCorp and operated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in partnership with Hoopa Valley Tribe in their coho program, to the state of California. He said the hatchery should be transferred instead to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the trustee for the Tribe.

I will update this article as a I receive information from supporters and critics of the agreements.

(Creative commons photo by Taomeister.)

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.