Landmark Decision for the Klamath River: Four Dams Approved for Removal

If you’ve been following some environmental news recently, you’ve probably heard about something monumental happening in southern Oregon/northern California. That is, after a lengthy process of negotiations, four dams on the Klamath River are officially going to be removed. On Thursday, Nov. 17th the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission signed the final transfer of license from the dams’ owner/operator to the newly-formed organization that will oversee their decommission and breaching. 

The scale and importance of this project cannot be overstated: it will be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in the history of the world.  The Klamath is California’s second-largest river, and around 400 miles of its main-stem and tributary salmon habitat have been blocked since the last of four dams was completed in 1962.  Prior to dam construction, upwards of a million salmon returned annually to the Klamath basin, making it the third most productive salmon watershed in the American west, behind the Columbia and Sacramento. 

The river gained national attention in 2002, when unprecedented low water below the dams resulted in a die-off of tens of thousands of Chinook salmon and steelhead (official mortality count was 34,000, but it’s been estimated that as many as 70,000 salmon and steelhead could have met their end. For perspective, that’s close to the total number of salmon and steelhead that returned to Idaho last year).  Upstream irrigators had diverted more water than normal during a tough drought year, and the lower river was drawn to a trickle of 475 cubic feet per second, breaking the previous low-flow record of 800 in 1908.  The low water combined with hot temperatures to allow a gill-rot disease to spread in returning salmon.  Local tribes who depend upon those salmon returns for subsistence fishing, as well as a continued cultural identity, were understandably outraged. The fish kill, the largest in western U.S. history, effectively served to galvanize the tribes’ and environmental groups’ calls for dam removal on the Klamath.  

It’s interesting and not insignificant to note that there were points between 2002 and now when dam removal on the Klamath was considered to be completely off the table.  

For some more reading on the project, statistics, numbers, nerdy stuff (I happen to think it’s all pretty interesting), check out the following links: - a group comprised of local tribes, Trout Unlimited, Amercan Rivers and others - an American Rivers press release from Nov. 17, 2022 - another organization made up of multiple nonprofits and tribes. 

There are pretty self-evident reasons why this project’s green light is important and has implications for other salmon restoration efforts around the US. There are some overt similarities to the movement to retire the four Lower Snake dams, and indeed some similarities between the respective sets of dams themselves.  For example, the Klamath dams manufacture around 2% of Pacificorp’s electrical production at their peak capacity - which, in the recent drought years, they’ve very rarely reached.  Similarly, the four Snake dams produce around 4% of the BPA’s northwest grid.  Like the Klamath dams, they’re unable to significantly boost their electrical production by storing large amounts of water and releasing it strategically when incoming flows are lower. 

Similar to the Snake dams, the benefits provided by the Klamath dams could be replaced in other ways; while the salmon depending on the river have no other way: there’s not a viable replacement for 400 miles of blocked spawning habitat. 

Perhaps the most significant fact of the Klamath project, though, is the fact that these structures were considered monolithic and immovable; and a cooperative solution was reached by many parties who all had a stake in the river’s water, but whose purposes, interests, and livelihoods were often at ostensible odds to one another.  Everyone who stood to gain or lose by the dams’ existence or disappearance had a seat at the negotiating table. 

It’s also important to remember, though, that this was in the end a business decision by the corporation who owned the dams.  The cost of their upkeep was about to outpace the cost of one-time removal.  In this, the Klamath situation is different than that on the Snake: the Snake dams are federally owned and their power BPA-marketed.  There’s not a corporation with a hard bottom line to maintain.  This has its pros and cons: if the Snake dams continue to be cost-ineffective, as they have for years, there’s not as pressing an impetus to divest from that losing proposition.  However, since the Snake dams are federally owned structures, this means we all as U.S. citizens should have a say in deciding their fate (however difficult or roundabout it is to deliver one’s opinion on the matter to a governing entity). 

In the end, anyone who supports the restoration of a free-flowing Lower Snake should take heart from this news - not because a divisive battle was bitterly fought and won, and an adversary defeated; but because a collaborative solution was found between parties with what seemed like very little common ground between them and their interests. If it can happen there, you better believe it can happen here.  

Of course, the whole story just isn't all that simple.  It's certainly a win for salmon and steelhead, but none of us live in a local or regional community wherein salmon and steelhead are the only important issue.  There were years of negotiations between Klamath basin stakeholders, and the result of this - the first dam removal agreement, reached in 2010 - was nixed in Congress by the then-ascendant Tea Party, who were firmly opposed to any dam removal.  Unfortunately, the 2010 agreement was the only one that included water-sharing guarantees for all users in the basin.  Subsequent agreements contained less surety for all parties, except for the Endangered Species Act-listed salmon downstream.  You may be wondering, why didn't parties just come back to the table, and negotiate an updated version of the same agreement? Good question.  It's complicated, but ownership aspects of the four dams in question changed in the ensuing years.  By the time the latest removal agreement was reached, Pacificorp was the sole proprietor of the dams.  They no longer required congressional action to remove, just a shuffling of licensing status under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Pacificorp could just decide to retire these assets that had slowly become liabilities, and users of their stored water upstream had essentially no say in the matter.  

How does this relate to the Snake River, to Idaho, to our salmon and steelhead?  A simple answer might be, this is a cautionary tale embedded within a superficial win for salmon.  Currently, there's a widespread acknowledgement throughout the scientific community, and many governmental entities, that the Snake River dams must be removed to recover Idaho's salmon.  Rep. Mike Simpson's 2021 Columbia Basin Initiative provided a framework for good-faith negotiations about how such a massive project might proceed without undue damage to the agricultural and industrial interests that depend on the Snake River dams.  The parallel develops: just such an opportunity was present in the Klamath basin in the 2000's. It was used to good effect, but a lack of political action led to the demise of agreements that had been reached.  

Some people believe the removal, or at least draw-down, of the Snake River dams is just as inevitable as the removal of those on the Klamath.  If that is the case, if something like that does proceed, we only have a limited time to make sure it proceeds with concessions and assistance to the stakeholders who need those reservoirs in place.  Otherwise we'll almost certainly face years of costly litigation, a serious economic blow to the the Tri-State region, and potentially generations of bitterness in response.  Yes, the river might run free from Hell's Canyon to the Columbia, and yes, the salmon and steelhead might have a clear enough migration route to begin to rebuild themselves, but we'll still have a fight on our hands. The last thing we want is a divisive issue that drags on for years into the future, galvanizing neighbors against neighbors and feeding the already spiraling us/them ugliness that pervades American politics at the moment. 

So let's be glad for the tribes, salmon, anglers, outfitters, and ecosystems of the Klamath, but let's be careful.  Let's make sure that when we secure a free-flowing Snake for Idaho's salmon and steelhead, that no one's left out in the proverbial cold. Some prominent river basins have been down this path before us: Maine's Kennebec and Penobscot, Washington's Elwha and White Salmon, Oregon's Rogue and Sandy.  Let's learn their lessons, be the wiser for it, and still give our salmon a road to recovery.