Peninsula Daily News
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — What is being touted as the world’s biggest dam-removal project — larger and more complex than the Elwha River dam removals near Port Angeles — an agreement has been reached to remove four dams on the Klamath River and restore a 300-mile migratory route for beleaguered salmon.
The tentative agreement last week was reached after a decade of negotiations and bitter feuding over the river by 28 parties, including Native American tribes, farmers, fishermen and the hydroelectric company that operates the dams and distributes the water.
The plan would set in motion one of the most ambitious efforts in U.S. history to restore the habitat of a federally protected species if it receives final approval by the parties in December, as expected.
The hydroelectric dams — Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and JC. Boyle, ranging in size from 33 feet to 173 feet and spread across 65 miles of the Klamath — have blocked fish migration for a century along the California-Oregon border.
They have been blamed for much of the historic decline of chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout in the Klamath, which winds from southern Oregon through the Cascade and Coast ranges to California’s Pacific.
Under the plan, the dams operated by the utility, PacifiCorp, would be dismantled beginning in 2020.
The 108-foot Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River west of Port Angeles are scheduled for removal in a $308 million project that will begin in 2011.
The Elwha dam removal project, now the largest of its kind in the nation, is intended to restore the river to its natural state and enhance salmon and steelhead habitat.
Both hydroelectric dams were built without fish ladders and block fish migration to the upper 38 miles of the Elwha River and more than 30 miles of tributary habitat.
The ultimate goal of the so-called Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement is to restore what has historically been the third-largest source of salmon in the lower 48 states, behind the Columbia and Sacramento rivers.
Chinook once swam all the way up to Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon, providing crucial sustenance to Native Americans, including the Yurok, Kanik, Klamath and Hoopa Valley tribes.
"This is the deal that we have all been working on for 10 years,” said Steve Rothert, the California director of American Rivers, a national nonprofit river conservation group.
"There were a lot of peopIe who didn’t think we could do this, and some groups that worked actively to prevent it.
"It’s fantastic that we’ve reached this spot.” The groups involved in the negotiations agreed Tuesday to take the proposal to their various boards and commissions for approval and then have everybody sign the final document in December
The project, which would cost an estimated $450 million, is then expected to go through nearly three years of study and cost analysis before it lands on the desk of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2012.
"This agreement marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Klamath River and for the commmunities whose health and way of life depend on it,” Salazar said in a written statement.
"This agreement would establish an open, scientifically grounded process that will help me make a fully informed decision about whether dam removal is in the public interest.”
Serious talk of removing the dams began in 2002 after a federally ordered change in water flow led to the death of 33,000 salmon in the river. The effort picked up momentum over the past few years after devastating declines in the number of spawning salmon in both the Klamath and Sacramento river basins.
The paltry number of fish forced regulators to ban virtually all ocean fishing of chinook salmon in California and Oregon over the past two years.
Blocks 300 miles
The four dams were built along the Klamath’s main stem starting in 1909, blocking off about 300 miles of salmon-spawning habitat.
The dams warmed the river water, allowing destructive parasites and blooms of toxic, blue-green algae to contaminate the water. Water diversions to cities and for agriculture exacerbated the problem, according to fishery biologists.
The various tribes with rights to the river have been battling for years to get the dams removed. Fishermen and environmentalists rallied to their side, but PacifiCorp and farmers along the Upper Klamath Basin fought the effort and even sought to extend the hydropower lease.
Some agricultural groups still oppose the plan out of fear that it would limit irrigation and raise the cost of energy, and a few claim it is little more than a giveaway to environmental interests, but most of the stakeholders now at least support moving forward.
"I cannot adequately say how impressed I am by everyone’s ability to put aside their differences,” said Craig Tucker, spokesman for the Karuk tribe.
"There is a long history of not getting along, of fighting over water rights. Now we are optimistic.”
PacifiCorp has pledged to raise $200 million of the cost of removing the dams by implementing a surcharge on its customers in California and Oregon, but the bulk of the money would come from Oregon.
Tearing down the dams is expected to cost less than making the improvements necessary to comply with the federal Clean Water Act and Fish and Wildlife Agency regulations, which would require, among other things, the construction of fish ladders and screens.
The utility would have to get certification from both states under the Clean Water Act to continue operating the dams, a potentially difficult proposition given the algae problems.