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In 'momentous' act, regulators approve demolition of four Klamath River dams

Hayley Smith, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

In a milestone decision, federal regulators on Thursday signed off on plans to demolish four aging dams along the Klamath River, paving the way for hundreds of miles of native fish habitat along the California-Oregon border to flow freely for the first time in more than a century.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision will see licenses of the four dams transferred from the PacifiCorp energy company — a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway — to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit entity created to oversee the dam removal, and to the states of California and Oregon.

The vote marks the final major hurdle for what will be the largest dam removal project in the nation’s history, officials said. The $500-million demolition has been championed by environmental organizations, commercial fishing groups and tribes who spent 20 years fighting for the river’s restoration.

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” Yurok Chairman Joseph James said in a statement. “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.”

Officials said the dam removal process could begin as soon as next year, with the smallest dam, Copco 2, slated to be removed first. Deconstruction of the remaining three dams will occur in early 2024, with all four dams removed by the end of that year.

FERC commissioners on Thursday described the decision as “momentous,” “historic,” and “the culmination of years of work.”

 

“Some people might ask why, in this time of great need for zero-emissions energy, why are we, why is the licensee, agreeing to remove the dams?” Chairman Richard Glick said during the meeting. “First, we have to understand this doesn’t happen every day ... A lot of these projects were licensed a number of years back when there wasn’t as much focus on environmental issues, and some of these projects have a significant impact on the environment and a significant impact on fish and other wildlife.”

Indeed, salmon populations in the once-teeming Klamath Basin have dwindled to almost nothing in large part because of the dam-blocked habitat. In an April letter to FERC, the Pacific Fishery Management Council noted that the Klamath River once produced the “third-most prolific salmon runs of all river systems in the lower 48 states.”

Today, those runs are at only a “small fraction of their historical average,” the council said, with two of the runs listed under the Federal or California Endangered Species Acts, or both.

Mark Bransom, chief executive of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, said the dam removal will not only create conditions that will allow fish to move up and down the river freely, but will also help improve water-quality conditions on the river, including toxic algal blooms in stagnant reservoirs.

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