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Yurok Chairman Thomas P. O'Rourke Sr. speaks with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell at the signing on the banks of the Klamath River.

Saving the Salmon: Feds, States, Tribes Ink Plan to Demolish Four Klamath River Dams

Terri Hansen

The nation’s largest dam removal project is back on track under a new agreement that will decommission four dams and open hundreds of miles of the hotly contested Klamath River in Oregon and California to endangered salmon, blocked for nearly a century.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Karuk tribal natural resources director Leaf Hillman said in a statement. “We are more than ready to welcome the salmon home.”

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell , Yurok Tribal Chair Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., Karuk Tribal Chair Russell “Buster” Attebery, Klamath Tribal Chair Don Gentry, the governors of Oregon and California, and dam owner PacificCorp signed the landmark agreements, set out on two long fish tables, on the Yurok Indian Reservation in northern California on April 6.

“I can’t think of a better signing table than a fish cleaning table,” Secretary Jewell told those gathered for the ceremony. “That’s just so symbolic.”

O'Rourke said the agreement means the Klamath River can begin to heal.

“Dam removal is a key element of large-scale fish restoration efforts on the Klamath, and we believe it puts the people of the Klamath Basin back on a path toward lasting prosperity,” O’Rourke said in a statement. 

The dam demolitions are slated to begin by 2020, but the agreement still needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). That shouldn’t pose a problem, said Craig Tucker, Natural Resources Policy Advocate for the Karuk Tribe, since dam owner PacificCorp is a willing seller.

“In the last few decades, dam removals have been done thru the FERC process,” Tucker told ICTMN. “If the dam owner comes forward with the decommissioning plan, FERC has approved it. I think it would be pretty shocking if FERC did not approve the deal.”

The new agreement amends one of two previous Klamath basin restoration and dam removal agreements, which expired last year when Congress failed to approve them. Completing the restoration of the Klamath basin and its fisheries will require future projects that need to comply with the federal trust responsibilities to the tribes, and sustain the region’s farming and ranching economy, and those will require congressional action. But it is hoped that removing the dams without raising the cost of irrigation for farmers and ranchers will pave the way for congressional approval.

Attebery called the agreement a huge leap forward, but said they must continue to work with the agriculture community to solve water conflicts as well.

“This agreement is an important initial step as we work toward a comprehensive set of actions to advance long term restoration and sustainability for tribes, fisheries, and agriculture and water users across the Klamath Basin,” Jewell said in a statement.

“We believe that taking care of the Klamath River is the responsibility of everyone who lives in the basin,” Attebery said in a statement. “We can’t restore our fishery without working with our neighbors in agriculture, and they can’t secure water for their farms without working with us.”

This latest agreement follows nearly two decades of bitter struggles between the interests of tribes, agriculture, environmentalists, governmental agencies and PacifiCorp.

Federal water management practices over the past century obstructed the federally reserved fishing rights of the Klamath basin tribal nations as irrigation for crops in the historically arid upper basin drew high volumes of water from the watershed. In 2001 a drought led to a decision to increase water downstream to protect two species of suckerfish, culturally important to the tribes, and wild coho salmon under the Endangered Species Act. It withheld irrigation water from farmers, pitting them against the tribes, conservation groups and federal agencies.

The political backlash led to a reversal of the decision and restored irrigation to the upper basin in 2002. That caused the largest salmon kill in the history of the West. Some 70,000 salmon died, a die-off so massive and so visible it stunned the sensibilities of Yurok tribal members living at the mouth of the river.

The Klamath Tribes of Oregon took the issue to court, which affirmed their senior water rights in 2013, giving them a “time immemorial” priority date before any others. They provide that specific quantities of water be maintained in-stream to provide for fisheries and other treaty resources, limiting water to farmers and ranchers. The Karuk and the Yurok tribal nations have the option of pursuing that avenue as well.

“The Klamath River is our lifeline, and it is inextricably linked to the health and welfare of the Yurok people,” O’Rourke said. “It will be a truly historic day when we see salmon travel from the Klamath’s headwaters to the sea.”

Follow Terri Hansen on Twitter @terrihansen.

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