The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s unanimous vote on the lower Klamath River dams is the last major regulatory hurdle and the biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years.
(Photo courtesy of Facebook/Caltrans.)
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) U.S. regulators approved a plan to demolish four dams on a California river and open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat that would be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in the world when it goes forward.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's unanimous vote on the lower Klamath River dams is the last major regulatory hurdle and the biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years. The project would return the lower half of California's second-largest river to a free-flowing state for the first time in more than a century.
Native tribes that rely on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life have been a driving force behind bringing the dams down in a wild and remote area that spans the California and Oregon border. Barring any unforeseen complications, Oregon, California and the entity formed to oversee the project will accept the license transfer and could begin dam removal as early as this summer, proponents said.
"The Klamath salmon are coming home," Yurok Chairman Joseph James said 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 dams produce less than 2 percent of PacifiCorp's power generation — enough to power about 70,000 homes — when they are running at full capacity, said Bob Gravely, spokesperson of the utility. But they often run at a far lower capacity because of low water in the river and other issues, and the agreement that paved the way for the vote was ultimately a business decision, he said.
PacifiCorp would have had to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in fish ladders, fish screens and other conservation upgrades under environmental regulations that were not in place when the aging dams were first built. But with the deal approved, the utility's cost is capped at $200 million, with another $250 million from a California voter-approved water bond.
"We're closing coal plants and building wind farms and it all just has to add up in the end," he said of the demolition. "It's not a one-to-one. You can make up that power by the way you operate the rest of your facilities or having energy efficiency savings so your customers are using less."
Approval of the order to surrender the dams' operating license is the bedrock of the most ambitious salmon restoration plan in history and the project's scope — measured by the number of dams and the amount of river habitat that would reopen to salmon — makes it the largest of its kind in the world, said Amy Souers Kober, spokesperson of American Rivers, which monitors dam removals and advocates for river restoration.
More than 300 mi. of salmon habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries would benefit, she said.
The decision is in line with a trend toward removing aging and outdated dams across the U.S. as they come up for license renewal and confront the same government-mandated upgrade costs as the Klamath River dams would have had.
Across the U.S., 1,951 dams have been demolished as of February, including 57 in 2021, American Rivers said. Most of those have come down in the past 25 years as facilities age and come up for relicensing.
Commissioners called the decision "momentous" and "historic" and spoke of the importance of taking the action during National Native American Heritage Month because of its importance to restoring salmon and reviving the river that is at the heart of the culture of several tribes in the region.
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