Pacific Northwest
Klamath River Dam. Flickr

OR/CA - Commentary: What a Long, Strange Trip to Kill Four Dams

Four dams on the Klamath River in northern California and southern Oregon will be removed this summer. For stakeholders, it’s been a long, strange trip to reach this point in the dams’ history.

Finally, after a 50-year effort, four massive dams on the Klamath River in northern California and Oregon will start coming down this July.

For the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Shasta, and Klamath tribes living along this river since time immemorial, there’s much to celebrate. They have long fought for the lives of the salmon that are harmed by these dams, and for their right to fish for them.

Even PacifiCorp, which marketed the electricity of the four hydroelectric-producing dams, will also have something to cheer about. PacifiCorp, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett, won’t have pricey fish ladders to install and its share of the cost of dam removal has been passed to ratepayers in both states.

Environmentalists are also hailing this latest victory for river-renewal, based on the Electric Consumers Protection Act of 1986. The law ordered operators of most federal dams to provide passages for fish so they could swim upstream to spawn.

When the very first American dam was destroyed, in 1999, I was in Augusta, Maine, to help celebrate. After the Edwards Dam was breached, the Kennebec River ran free for the first time since the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne walked its banks 160 years before. On the south side of the river stood residents whose ancestors worked in the mills the dam had powered. Many were crying. It reminded me that change is never easy.

For California and Oregon officials, along with farmers and others who had reached an agreement as far back in 2008, the dam removals signal that this long and emotional fight is finally over. And why has there been a settlement after all this time? A short answer is the growing reality of the West’s increasing aridity.

In 2001, yet another dry year in the upper Klamath, farmers woke up to find their headgates for irrigation water locked. It was done to preserve flows for endangered salmon, but for outraged farmers it meant their crops were ruined and they lost anywhere from $27 million to $47 million. Death threats followed, along with shootings and even a farmers’ cavalry charge.

The newly elected Bush administration reacted by making sure the farmers got their water, though this triggered one of the largest salmon die-offs in history. The Klamath Tribes were infuriated.

Read more.