PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The world’s largest dam demolition and river restoration plan could all but become a reality Thursday as U.S. regulators vote on a plan to remove four aging hydroelectric structures, causing hundreds of miles of riverine habitat in California are being reopened to endangered salmon.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s vote on the Lower Klamath River dams is the latest major regulatory hurdle and biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal that has been championed for years by Native American tribes and environmentalists.
Approval of the application to surrender the dams’ operating license will form the basis of the most ambitious salmon recovery plan in history, and if approved, the parties overseeing the project will accept the license transfer and could begin work as early as this summer remove the dam. More than 300 miles (482.80 kilometers) of salmon habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries would benefit, said Amy Souers Kober, spokeswoman for American Rivers, which oversees dam removal and advocates for river restoration.
“This is an incredibly important milestone,” she said. “This project has really important lessons for rivers and the conservation movement, and the most important lesson is tribal leadership. It is thanks to the tribes that these dams will come true and the river will be restored.”
The vote comes at a critical time as human-induced climate change wreaks havoc on the western United States with prolonged drought, American Rivers president Tom Kiernan said. He said if California’s second largest river could flow naturally and the floodplains and wetlands function normally, these impacts would be mitigated.
“The best way to manage increasing floods and droughts is to let the river system be healthy and run its course,” he said.
“Instead of having reservoirs where a significant portion of that water evaporates, it’s better to let that river flow and let the floodplains and wetlands filter the water and take it to the groundwater where it doesn’t evaporate.”
The watershed of the Klamath Basin covers more than 37,500 square miles, and the Klamath itself was once the third-largest salmon-producing river on the West Coast. But the dams, built between 1918 and 1962, essentially cut the river in half and prevent salmon upstream from reaching spawning grounds. As a result, salmon stocks have been shrinking for years.
Indigenous tribes who depend on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life have been a driving force in bringing down the dams. Members of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes plan to light a bonfire and watch the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meet Thursday at a remote sandbar in the Klamath River via a satellite uplink to raise their hopes for the renewal to symbolize the river.
Yurok vice chairman Frankie Myers told The Associated Press ahead of the meeting that he was excited but also concerned about the outcome of the vote.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been so let down for the past two decades,” he said. “If there is still salmon in the water, they have a chance and we have a chance. …They will come down. They have to come down. Our existence depends on it.”
But plans to remove the dams are controversial.
A group of homeowners living around Copco Lake, one of the major reservoirs, has been battling plans to remove the dam for years, saying the value of their lakeside homes has plummeted. A coalition formed to oppose the demolition plan argues that the money set aside to cover the demolition is insufficient and that cost overruns and liability concerns would fall on taxpayers’ shoulders.
They also wonder if removing the dams will work to restore salmon because of changes in the Pacific Ocean that are also affecting the fish, said Richard Marshall, head of the Siskiyou County Water Users Association.
“The whole question is, will this contribute to increased salmon production? It has everything to do with what’s going on in the ocean (and) we think this will prove to be a futile effort,” he said. has ever tried to solve the problem by taking care of the existing situation without just removing the dams.”
Taxpayers in the rural counties surrounding the dams are also angry about the project, which is funded by $200 million from PacifiCorp and $250 million from a voter-approved California water bond.
US regulators raised flags over the potential for cost overruns and liability issues in 2020, nearly nullifying the proposal, but Oregon, California and PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelectric dams and is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company, worked together to add another $50 million in emergency funds.
The utility would face high costs to add fish ladders and other environmental mitigation measures to its aging dams to renew its hydroelectric license and has diversified its energy portfolio enough in recent years to meet the loss of the dams, it said. Company.
If regulators approve it Thursday, Oregon, California and the Klamath River Renewal Corporation — the entity created to oversee the demolition and environmental mitigation — must sign the license surrender and then work can begin. Regulators can also approve but add further specifications or reject it altogether.
If approved, Copco 2, the smallest dam, could collapse as early as next summer, said Craig Tucker, natural resources policy adviser for the Karuk tribe. The reservoirs behind the dams would be slowly drained in early 2024, with the hope of having the river fully back in its channel by the end of 2024, he said.
The scope of the project surpasses the other largest U.S. dam demolition to date, when two century-old dams were breached in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula’s Eolwha River in 2012, said American Rivers’ Kober. Environmentalists are not aware of any other river restoration project in the world with a wider scope than the one planned for the lower Klamath, she added.
In the U.S., 1,951 dams have been demolished since February, with 57 due by 2021, the organization said. Most of those have declined over the past 25 years as facilities age and require new licenses.
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