Regulators have approved the demolition of the largest dam in history near the Oregon-California border to restore salmon habitat

U.S. regulators on Thursday approved a plan to demolish four dams on a California river and open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat in what would be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in the world if it goes ahead.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s unanimous vote on the lower Klamath River dams is the latest major regulatory hurdle and biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal that has been championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years. The project would restore the lower half of California’s second largest river to a free-flowing state for the first time in more than a century.

Native American tribes who depend on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life were a driving force behind the dismantling of the dams in a wild and remote area that straddles the California-Oregon border. Barring 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 this summer, advocates said.

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” Yurok Chairman Joseph James said after the vote. “The people have earned this victory, and in doing so we fulfill our sacred duty to the fish that have fed our people from the beginning of time.”

The dams produce less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s electricity generation — enough to power about 70,000 homes — when at full capacity, said Bob Gravely, spokesman for the utility. But they often run at a much lower capacity because of low river water and other issues, and the deal that paved the way for Thursday’s vote was ultimately a business decision, he said.

PacifiCorp would have had to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in fish ladders, fish grates and other conservation improvements under environmental regulations that weren’t in place when the aging dams were first built. But with the deal approved Thursday, the utility’s costs are capped at $200 million, with an additional $250 million from a water bond approved by California voters.

“We are closing coal-fired power plants and building wind farms, and in the end everything has to pay off. It’s not a one-on-one,” he said of the impending dam breach. “You can offset that electricity by how you run the rest of your facilities or by making energy efficiency savings so your customers use less.”

Approval of the dams operating license order is the foundation of the most ambitious salmon restoration plan in history, and the scale of the project – measured by the number of dams and the amount of river habitat that would reopen to salmon – makes it the largest of its kind in the world, said Amy Souers Kober, spokeswoman for American Rivers, which oversees dam dismantling and advocates for river restoration.

More than 300 miles of salmon habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries would benefit, she said.

The decision is in line with the trend to remove aging and obsolete dams in the US as they come up for license renewal and face the same government-mandated modernization costs that the Klamath River dams would have had.

As of February, 1,951 dams had been demolished in the U.S., including 57 in 2021, American Rivers said. Most of these have declined over the past 25 years as facilities have aged and will need to be re-licensed.

Commissioners on Thursday called the decision “significant” and “historic” and spoke of the importance of taking action during National Native American Heritage Month as it contributes to the restoration of salmon and the revitalization of the river that is at the heart of the culture of several Tribes are important in the region.

“Some people may ask at this time of great need for zero emissions, ‘Why are we removing the dams?’ First, we need to understand that this doesn’t happen every day. Many of these projects were licensed a few years ago when environmental considerations were less of a focus,” said FERC Chairman Richard Glick. “Some of these projects have significant environmental impacts and significant impacts on fish.”

Glick added that the commission has historically failed to consider the impact of energy projects on tribes, but said it was a “very important element” of Thursday’s decision.

Members of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes and other supporters lit a bonfire and followed the vote on a remote sandbank of the Klamath River via satellite link to symbolize their hopes for river renewal.

“I understand that some of these tribes are watching this meeting at the (river) bar today and I toast you,” Commissioner Willie Phillips said.

The vote comes at a critical moment as human-caused climate change is ravaging the western United States with prolonged drought, said Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers. He said if California’s second-largest river was allowed to flow naturally and its floodplains and wetlands function normally, those impacts would be mitigated.

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

The Klamath Basin watershed covers more than 14,500 square miles 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 half and prevent salmon from reaching spawning grounds upstream. As a result, salmon runs have been declining for years.

The smallest dam, Copco 2, could fall as early as this summer. The remaining dams — one in southern Oregon and two in California — will be released very slowly beginning in early 2024, with a goal of returning the river to its natural state by the end of this year.

Plans to remove the dams were not without controversy.

Homeowners on Copco Lake, a large reservoir, are strongly opposed to the demolition plan, and taxpayers in rural counties around the dams worry that taxpayers may shoulder the cost of overruns or liability issues. Critics also believe the dam’s removal will not be enough to save the salmon due to changing sea conditions that the fish encounter before returning to their natal river.

“The whole question is, will this contribute to increased salmon production? It has everything to do with what’s going on in the ocean (and) we believe that will prove to be a wasted effort,” said Richard Marshall, director of the Siskiyou County Water Users Association. “Nobody has ever tried to solve the problem by taking care of the existing situation without simply removing the dams.”

U.S. regulators have hoisted flags about possible cost overruns and liability issues in 2020, all but scrapping the proposal, but Oregon, California and PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelectric plants and is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, have teamed up to add another $50 million in emergency funds.

PacifiCorp will continue to operate the dams until demolition begins.

— The Associated Press