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Tribal nations and Native people are celebrating a decision made Thursday by federal regulators approving a plan for the largest dam removal plan in U.S. history.

The move is considered a crucial step in saving dwindling salmon populations. Tribes in the region also see it as a sign the federal government is serious about respecting treaty rights and Indigenous culture.

“It's a historic change and it's really exciting,” said Amy Bowers-Cordalis, a Yurok tribal citizen, attorney for the tribe and co-founder of a nonprofit aimed at protecting and restoring natural and cultural resources important to Native people. “And it's absolutely what they should do anyways and should have done a long time ago.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to transfer ownership of four dams on the Klamath River in northern California and southern Oregon from utility company PacificCorp to the two states and a nonprofit formed to manage the project. The commission called the decision “historic” and “momentous” because tribal advocacy influenced the outcome. Some hope this might lead to greater consideration of treaty rights and Native culture in federal permitting decisions around power generation and dams.

The decision is expected to allow the decommission and destruction of the dams and open up hundreds of miles of a river that once was the richest salmon river in the U.S. Since the four dams were built between 1918 and 1962, salmon have been blocked from reaching spawning areas, contributing to a drastic decline in the number of salmon in the river.

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” Yurok Chairman Joseph James said in a statement after Thursday’s vote. “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.”

The $500 million project – which regulators said will be the country’s ever largest dam removal and river restoration – is expected to create several hundred jobs related to the project and up to 1,500 indirect jobs. It will also be a boon to businesses and contractors owned by tribal governments or citizens. A federal environmental impact analysis recommended that the project move forward in August.

The Iron Gate Dam is one of several dams scheduled to be removed by 2024. The removals are expected to help water flow and improve the river’s health, but they remain controversial. Michael Wier/KRCC

‘FERC recognized that its past with Indian Country has been awful’

Driving the approximately two decades-long fight to remove the dams was an imperiled salmon population, which proponents said had declined to about 5% of its historical average and threatened to sever a connection to one of the most important pieces of historic and present-day culture and food for tribes who call the Klamath Basin part of their homelands.

Tribal leaders celebrated the decision, saying a free-flowing river in its natural state will lead to better water quality, better habitat for fish and other wildlife and help revitalize Native cultures that rely on salmon not just for sustenance, but view them as relatives or are otherwise crucial to ceremonial and cultural practices.

The decision isn’t just a victory for Native people who relied on the river and its once-abundant salmon runs and now are more hopeful they’ll continue to do so.

It also parallels the intensifying debate around the future of hydroelectric power dam projects – including those in the Columbia River Basin’s lower Snake River – and the devastating effects they’ve had for Indigenous culture and people.

The decision from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was a sign that the federal government was finally more serious about considering the impacts its decisions on project proposals and permit applications would have on treaty rights and Indigenous cultures, Bowers-Cordalis said.

“Essentially, FERC recognized that its past with Indian Country and protecting tribal rights has been awful and that they are going to work toward making things better for Indian Country and that they’re going to try and protect tribal rights,” Bowers-Cordalis, who has advocated for the move for years and was at Thursday’s meeting in Washington D.C., said in an interview with ICT and Underscore News.

For some, the decision to allow four clean, renewable energy-producing dams wouldn’t make sense given the federal government’s desire to generate more electricity using zero-emission methods, commissioners said Thursday. And although removing the dams “makes sense in large part due to fish and wildlife protections,” FERC Commission Chairman Richard Glick said the commission’s order heavily relied not on energy production or conservation considerations, but rather the wishes and needs of Native nations and people.

“A number of years back, the commission did not think about the impact of our decisions on tribes,” he said. “That’s an important element in today’s order.”

Dam removal is expected as soon as next year and planned to wrap up by the end of 2024.

Led by tribes

Without tribes and Indigenous people championing the effort, Thursday’s vote may have never happened.

Tribes launched their efforts in 2002, after water in the river was diverted for farmers, lowering water levels and causing widespread disease in what would become the largest fish die-off in the history of the western United States. Tribes and Indigenous people kicked off lobbying efforts that included lawsuits and trips to Scotland, where PacificCorp’s then-parent company was based, to call for change at shareholder meetings.

Jamie Holt, Yurok Tribe Fisheries biologist counts and documents dead fish during the 2021 salmon die off in the Klamath River. Stormy Staats/Klamath Salmon Media Collaborative

After PacificCorp’s license for the dams expired in 2006, negotiations over the future of the dams between groups, like tribes, agencies and others led to a 2010 agreement, amended in 2016, over the future of the watershed. All that culminated in FERC’s decision last Thursday.

The alarms raised by a coalition of tribal nations, like the Yurok and Karuk tribes, eventually gathered a diverse collection of other advocates to support the effort, including an array of conservation groups.

“The tribes were the ones that said ‘We need to take these dams out.’ The first time we said it, everybody looked at us like we were crazy and laughed,” Bowers-Cordalis said. “We pushed forward and persevered and continued to push for dam removal.”

Eventually, when it was clear that it was cheaper to remove the dams than continue to operate them, she said “all of a sudden the tribal leadership looked pretty smart,” leading to more groups joining the effort and intensified discussions around the idea.

The dam removals are just the first step in healing the river and helping salmon populations rebound, however. Habitat restoration work is expected to continue for years, according to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a group created to take over ownership of the dams that is governed by a board of members appointed by tribes, conservation groups, local governments, irrigators, PacificCorp and the states of Oregon and California.

Regardless, Hoopa Valley Tribe Chairman Joe Davis said he’s looking forward to the work ahead.

“Water and fish health are at the heart of our identity as Native people and we are looking forward to seeing a healthier watershed and fishery, which will result in healthier communities for all Klamath Basin tribes,” he said in a statement. “Now we must keep the momentum going and we are looking forward to working with all of our neighbors and partners in that effort.”

Healing a river

When the electric company that later became PacificCorp built the four dams between 1903 and 1962, engineers designed them without any passage for salmon, steelhead and lamprey, blocking access to nearly 400 miles of spawning grounds upriver and in the Klamath’s tributaries.

That’s caused a steep decline in salmon populations, which in turn motivated the push to see the dams destroyed. The dams also decreased water quality, especially behind dams in reservoirs where warm water collects pollution, agricultural runoff and leads to harmful algae blooms and other fluctuations in water temperature that are detrimental to salmon.

Yurok Tribal Council Member Ryan Ray said in a video posted to the tribe’s social media accounts that he had witnessed the declines in the salmon runs and river’s health as a lifelong resident of the sprawling Klamath basin.

Coho salmon are considered threatened and the spring Chinook salmon run is nearly at an extinction level, according to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit entity created to oversee the project. The problem worsened to the point that the Yurok Tribe had to buy salmon for its annual salmon festival in 2017 and has had to cancel fall Chinook salmon fishing in recent years due to low populations.

Yurok fisher Ashley Bowers walks with an empty net on the Klamath River. Courtesy Photo/Yurok Tribe

In the video, Ray said “a lot of prayers” were answered with Thursday’s decision, thanking anybody who played a role during the effort “and stayed at the table” for fighting to see their “vision happen,” including those who died before witnessing victory.

“Dam removal started out as a dream,” he said. “What that means to our communities, to everybody in the basin, is healing, not just for our river but for our communities.”

More modern dams on the river north of the four soon-to-be decommissioned dams aren’t affected by the project. The river starts at Upper Klamath Lake, which is fed by numerous streams and other rivers that flow through arid southern Oregon and far northern California before joining with the Klamath and eventually emptying into the Pacific Ocean.

If PacificCorp had continued to operate the four dams, the company would have been required to modify them by adding fish passages to allow salmon to get upstream.

And since the company said the dams only generated enough electricity to power about 70,000 homes when operating at full capacity – 2% of its electricity generation overall – even that was rare due to low water levels. PacificCorp said it would be cheaper to abandon the dams and that the power they generate can be easily replaced by other sources.

Dam removal wasn’t universally supported, however.

Critics have said the salmon populations won’t rebound as proponents expect because other factors outside of the Klamath Basin, including ocean conditions, are having a greater impact on the health and population.

They’ve also argued that the draining of reservoirs would lead to less waterfront property and decreased property value for those who own homes on reservoir shores, in addition to concerns like negative impacts to water wells and decreased water availability for irrigators, especially as sediment build up behind the dams washes away.

Still, federal regulators found that the benefits from improved water quality, habitat and other environmental improvements outweighed the potential negative consequences.

Both California and Oregon as well as the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, governed by a board of members appointed by tribes, the states, conservation groups, local governments, irrigators and PacificCorp, will now take over ownership of the dams. The cost of the project will be paid by PacificCorp and through bonds approved by California voters.

For the Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon, the commission’s decision will lead to one of its most important foods, salmon, returning to Klamath homelands far upstream from where the river pours into the ocean, for the first time in over 100 years. Though the tribe has to deal with unresolved disputes over water rights in its homelands surrounding irrigation and dam projects, and drought connected to Upper Klamath Lake and the upper range of the basin, leaders celebrated the ruling.

“The return of these fish will lead directly to both improved mental and physical health among our people,” Tribal Council Secretary Roberta Frost said in a statement.

Lead photo: Most years the Bureau of Reclamation releases water to flush out the Klamath River, improving water quality and reducing the number of parasites. Because of drought conditions, the bureau didn’t perform a flush in 2021. Anna Murveit/KRRC

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ContributorChris previously covered tribal affairs in the Pacific Northwest for Underscore and ICT. He is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and descendant of the Leech Lake Band...