US regulators to vote on largest dam demolition in history

By GILLIAN FLACCUS, Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The world’s largest plan to demolish dams and restore rivers could be close to reality Thursday as U.S. regulators vote on a plan to remove four aging hydroelectric structures, reopening hundreds of kilometers from California salmon river habitat at risk.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s vote on the lower Klamath River dams is the latest major regulatory hurdle and biggest step in the face of a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years.

Approval of the application to abandon the dams license is the foundation of the most ambitious salmon restoration plan in history, and if approved, the parties overseeing the project will agree to the license transfer and could begin removing the dam as early as this summer. More than 300 miles (482.80 kilometers) of salmon habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries would benefit, said Amy Souers Kober, spokeswoman for American Rivers, which monitors dam removal and advocates for restoration. from the river.

“This is an extremely important step,” she said. “This project really brings important lessons for rivers and the conservation movement, and the most important lesson is tribal leadership. It is because of the tribes that these dams will come out and the river will be restored.

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The vote comes at a critical time when human-induced climate change is hammering the western United States with prolonged drought, said Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers. He said allowing California’s second-largest river to flow naturally and its floodplains and wetlands to function normally would mitigate those impacts.

“The best way to deal with increased floods and droughts is to allow the river system to be healthy and do its job,” he said.

“Instead of having reservoirs where a significant amount of this water evaporates, it is better for this river to flow and allow floodplains and wetlands to filter the water and bring it back to the groundwater where it does not evaporate.”

The Klamath Basin watershed covers more than 14,500 square miles (37,500 square kilometers) and the Klamath itself was once the third largest salmon-producing river on the West Coast. But the dams, built between 1918 and 1962, essentially cut the river in two and prevent salmon from reaching spawning grounds upstream. As a result, salmon runs have been declining for years.

Indigenous tribes who depend on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life have been a driving force in bringing down the dams. Members of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes plan to light a bonfire and watch Thursday’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meeting on a secluded Klamath River sandbar via satellite uplink to symbolize their hopes for renewal of the river.

Frankie Myers, vice president of Yurok, told The Associated Press ahead of the meeting that he was excited, but also anxious, about the outcome of the vote.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been so disappointed over the past two decades,” he said. “If there are still salmon in the water, they have a chance and we have a chance. … They will come down. They have to come down. Our existence depends on it.

But plans to remove the dams have been controversial.

A group of homeowners who live around Lake Copco, one of the large reservoirs, have been fighting plans to remove the dam for years and say the value of their lakeside homes has plummeted. A coalition formed to oppose the demolition plan argues that the money set aside to cover the demolition is not enough and that cost overruns and liability issues would fall on taxpayers’ shoulders.

They also wonder if removing the dams will help restore salmon due to changes in the Pacific Ocean that are also affecting fish, said Richard Marshall, head of the Siskiyou County Water Users Association.

“The whole question is will this add to the increase in salmon production? It has everything to do with what’s happening in the ocean (and) we think it will turn out to be a futile effort,” he said. “No one has ever tried to solve the problem by dealing with the existing situation without simply removing the roadblocks.”

Taxpayers in rural counties around the dams are also angered by the project, which is funded by $200 million from PacifiCorp and $250 million from a voter-approved water bond in California.

US regulators flagged the potential for cost overruns and liability issues in 2020, nearly killing the proposal, but OregonCalifornia and PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelectric dams and is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company, have teamed up to add another $50 million in emergency funds.

The utility would face high costs to add fish ladders and other environmental mitigations to outdated dams to renew their hydro license and in recent years has diversified its energy portfolio enough to absorb the loss of the dams, has said the company.

If regulators approve Thursday, Oregon, California and the Klamath River Renewal Corporation — the entity formed to oversee demolition and environmental mitigation — must approve the license surrender, then work can begin. Regulators could also approve it, but add additional specifications, or reject it altogether.

If approved, Copco 2, the smaller dam, could fail as soon as next summer, said Craig Tucker, natural resources policy consultant for the Karuk Tribe. In early 2024, the reservoirs behind the dams would be slowly lowered, with the hope of fully returning the river to its channel by the end of 2024, he said.

The scope of the project goes beyond the other largest dam demolition in the United States to date, when two century-old dams were breached on the Eolwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 2012, said Kober of American Rivers. Environmental experts are unaware of any other river restoration project in the world larger in scope than that planned for lower Klamath, she added.

In the United States, 1,951 dams were demolished in February, including 57 in 2021, the organization said. Most of them have declined over the past 25 years as facilities age and need to be renewed.

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