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Klamath River dam removal long overdue

It has been a long, drawn-out process, with fits and starts, protests and public forums but, at last, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has given its final approval Thursday for a plan to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon.

It is expected to be the largest dam removal project in the country and could start as early as the spring of 2023.

The order paves the way for enactment of a settlement agreement nearly 15 years in the making by California, Oregon, the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, Berkshire Hathaway Energy-owned utility company PacifiCorp, fishing groups and other stakeholders, according to The Associated Press reporting.

In its ruling, FERC commissioners will turn over the operational licenses of four dams on the Klamath — J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate — to the states of California and Oregon and the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corp. (KRRC) from PacifiCorp, the dams’ owner. The Copco No. 2 dam could be removed as soon as the summer 2023 under the approved plan, with removal of J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1 and Iron Gate dams planned during 2024.

The electrical generation of these dams has been minimal in recent years, despite the claims by the opposition that the electricity was directly benefiting farms and ranches in Northern California and Southern Oregon. The dams produce less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s power generation — enough to power about 70,000 homes — when they are running at full capacity, said Bob Gravely, spokesperson for the utility. Rarely were they running at full capacity.

Anyone who has visited the Klamath River below J.C. Boyle — the only dam in Oregon — will tell you that river flows are minimal by the time the water get to Copco 1 and 2. Algae buildup is remarkably high along the rivers and sediment behind the dams is deep. A fish-kill this last summer saw hundreds of salmon die off downstream of the Iron Gate dam during low flows.

The hope is that once the dams are breached, the river will wash out the sediment and the river will flow clean and clear, allowing for salmon to swim 300 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean.

Many doubt that the flushing of the river will be as dramatic or quickly successful as it has been at other sites. We are in that camp as well. No one knows for sure how long it may take for the river to recover. It is likely that dredging will have to take place along the riverbanks and behind the dams to get a better stream flow.

It has been a common criticism of the dam removal project. But to do nothing means the river will continue to remain stagnant in places, becoming a breeding ground for bacteria.

Each spring the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation flushes water from Klamath Lake down the river to clear sediment that is a nursery for tiny worms that often attach themselves to fish and kill them. The annual flushings have been done with some marked success. But flushing out the entire river may take some time.

A half dozen tribes across Oregon and California, fishing groups and environmentalists had hoped to see demolition work begin as soon as 2022. But those plans stalled in July, when U.S. regulators questioned whether the nonprofit entity formed to oversee the project could adequately respond to any cost overruns or accidents, the AP reported.

The new plan makes Oregon and California equal partners in the demolition with the nonprofit entity, KRRC, and adds $45 million to the project’s $450 million budget to ease those concerns, the AP reported. Oregon, California and PacifiCorp will each provide one-third of the additional funds.

The economic benefits to Klamath Falls could be remarkable. Most of the dams are remotely located in Northern California, but the largest nearby town is Klamath Falls on the Oregon border. It has a shuttered airport adjacent to the Oregon National Guard air base that could be reopened depending on the need. The project would likely cause a spurt in much needed housing construction, too.

When the dams were built in the early 20th century, construction camps sprouted at all the sites. We envision something similar to this again, and Klamath could be the hub where the supplies would be trucked in from. Further, if the fishery vastly improves, sport anglers and outfitters will greatly benefit along with the tribes. Plans call for several new river access points for fishing.

Barring any more legal challenges, we hope to see this project finally get underway. There remain some unanswered questions, but those will only be answered as the project progresses.