Federal report boosts plan to remove 4 dams on the Calif River

PORTLAND, OR — Federal regulators released a final environmental impact statement Friday supporting the demolition of four massive dams on Northern California’s Klamath River to save endangered migratory salmon.

The staff’s recommendation, which is largely in line with an earlier draft opinion, will lead to a vote on the roughly $500 million project by the five-member Federal Energy Regulatory Commission later this year.

The removal of the four hydroelectric dams in the lower Klamath River — one in southern Oregon and three in California — would be the largest dam-demolition project in U.S. history.

The aging dams near the Oregon-California border were built before current environmental regulations and essentially cut the 253-mile (407-kilometer) river in half for migrating salmon. Migratory salmon have been hit hard by warming waters and low river flows due to severe drought and competition for water with agricultural interests.

The project on California’s second largest river would be at the forefront of an effort to demolish dams in the US as structures age and become less economically viable and as concerns mount over their environmental impact, with especially on fishing.

Northern California tribes have been fighting for years to remove the dams. They applauded the latest news.

“We see the light at the end of the tunnel for the removal of the dam,” Karuk chairman Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery said in a statement. “I am so proud of everyone in our river communities who have worked so hard over the past 20 years to realize our vision for river restoration.”

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River Coho salmon are listed as endangered under federal and California law, and their populations have declined by 52% to 95%. Spring chinook salmon, once the Klamath Basin’s largest run, is down 98%.

Fall chinook, the last to persist in significant numbers, has been so meager in recent years that the Yurok tribe stopped fishing for the first time in memory last year. In 2017, they bought fish in a supermarket for their annual salmon festival.

In recent years, as many as 90% of the juvenile salmon sampled tested positive for a disease that thrives when river flows are low.

If the dams were to remain, energy company PacifiCorp would likely have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars modifying the structures to comply with current environmental laws. As it stands, the utility has said that the electricity generated by the dams is no longer a significant part of its energy portfolio.

The original scrapping proposal floundered after regulators initially refused to allow PacifiCorp to abandon the project entirely.

A landmark deal reached in 2020 made Oregon and California equal partners in the demolition with a nonprofit called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which will oversee the project. That deal also added $45 million to the $450 million project budget following concerns that available funds were not enough to cover any overruns.

Oregon, California and PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelectric dams and is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company, each provided a third of the additional funds.

Some critics have said governors in Oregon and California were irresponsible for taking financial responsibility for cost overruns, claiming that part of the project will be funded by a voter-approved California water bond.

Some local and state officials are concerned about flood control, and residents living around a large reservoir created by one of the dams have unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit to halt the project.

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The dams that would be demolished are the Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and JC Boyle, which is located in Oregon.


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