On Nov. 17, U.S. regulators approved a plan to demolish four dams on a California river. They will open hundreds of miles of salmon habitat that would be the most significant dam removal and river restoration project in the world when it commences.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously voted on the lower Klamath River dams as the last major regulatory hurdle and the most significant milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years.
The project would return the lower half of California’s second-largest river to a free-flowing state for the first time in more than a century.
Native tribes that depend on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life have been a driving force behind bringing the dams down in a wild and remote area that spans the California and Oregon border. Besides unforeseen complications, Oregon, California, and the entity formed to oversee the project will accept the license transfer and could begin dam removal as early as the summer of next year.
The dams produce less than two percent of PacifiCorp’s power generation, one of the U.S.’s largest privately held transmission systems within the western Energy Imbalance Market — enough to power about 70,000 homes when running at total capacity, according to Bob Gravely, spokesperson for the utility. But they often run at a much lower capacity because of low water in the river and other issues. As a result, according to Gravely, the agreement that paved the way for the Nov. 17 vote was ultimately a business decision.
PacifiCorp would have had to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in fish ladders, fish screens, and other conservation upgrades under environmental regulations that were not in place when the dams were first built. But with the deal’s approval, the utility’s cost is capped at $200 million, with another $250 million from a California voter-approved water bond.
The order’s approval to surrender the dams’ operating license is the foundation of the most ambitious salmon restoration plan in history. The project’s scope is measured by the number of dams and the amount of river habitat that would reopen to salmon — making it the largest of its kind in the world, according to Amy Souers Kober, spokesperson for American Rivers, which oversees dam removals and is a supporter for river restoration.
According to Kober, more than 300 miles of salmon habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries would benefit.