HOOPA, Calif. – One thing is clear after driving north through small towns and along winding mountain roads to reach the base of the Klamath River Basin. Its isolation has helped save it.
A century after European contact, the river region remains forested and is dominated by four tribes – the three largest in California: Hoopa, Yurok and Karuk, and the largest in Oregon, the Klamath. Most other California tribal regions have been overtaken and ravaged in comparison.
But although the lush basin appears pristine, it hasn’t been immune to interference. Today seven dams line the 263-mile Klamath River, some producing toxic algae in the still waters of reservoirs and all blocking salmon from reaching 350 miles of spawning grounds.
A glimmer of hope appeared in November when the Bush administration proposed a nonbinding agreement that would result in removal of the four lowest dams beginning in 2020 – which would be the largest dam removal in U.S. history.
The possibility comes after 100 years without salmon for Klamath tribes upriver.
“The salmon are really the base of our culture,” said Annalia Norris, 33, of the Klamath tribe at the mouth of the river, for whom the spawn was the time of their world renewal ceremony.
“We honored the fish; they’re the ones that give us life and feed us,” Norris said. “That’s our whole culture. It’s centered around the salmon – we’re salmon people.”
The agreement reached in Sacramento was sent next to the U.S. Department of Interior, dam owner PacifiCorp and the governors of Oregon and California.
Tribes, fishing groups, farmers and conservationists have long pushed for dam removal, a call that was taken up by the state governors in 2006 after commercial salmon fisheries collapsed. Many dam removal proponents have been citing in talks with PacifiCorp the hefty $300 million price tag in updates required in order for the utility to renew its federal operating licenses.
As talks dragged on for months, activists held benefits including the Oct. 17 “Un-Dam the Klamath” concert at Humboldt State University. They also placed public pressure on PacifiCorp at its Portland headquarters and shareholder meetings of its owner, billionaire Warren Buffet’s company Berkshire Hathaway.
In September, Norris and a few hundred protestors marched to PacifiCorp’s headquarters after hanging a banner that read, “Warren Buffett Kills Salmon, Jobs and Communities” over Interstate-84. Protestors blocked the entrance of the building, disrupting business for the day.
“There will be no business as usual for PacifiCorp as long as there is no business as usual for Klamath River communities,” said Chook Chook Hillman, 24, of the Karuk tribe.
Buffet has been mentioned often by President-elect Barack Obama as a potential member of his cabinet. But despite Buffet’s lofty status, he is persona non grata in the Klamath Basin.
Here, reverence reigns for the river that had sustained the tribes for centuries before the dams. The Klamath River converges with one of its tributaries, the Trinity River, just beneath a small bridge where Hoopa territory ends and Yurok territory begins.
Atop this bridge, tribal members watched the White Deer Skin Dance this summer. Dancers and singers stood on canoes floating down the Klamath, aided by water flow controlled by operators at the lowest dam, Iron Gate.
PacifiCorp had argued its four hydroelectric dams, built between 1908 and 1962 by different owners, are a reliable source of renewable energy. But now that the agreement promotes favorable conditions for the utility, PacifiCorp officials are saying they are committed to removal.
Under the agreement, PacifiCorp would be protected from liability and ratepayers would bear up to $200 million in removal costs. PacifiCorp would also commit to paying California $500,000 a year for fish habitat improvements until the dams are removed.
Thus far, the dams have impaired “a whole major salmon river on the West Coast,” said Mike Belchik, senior fisheries biologist for the Yurok.
On average, 880,000 adult wild salmon would return to the Klamath each year. Today, less than 30,000 return, according to Klamath River Inter-Tribal Fish and Water Commission. Coho are only 1 percent of their population before the seven dams, the first built in 1903.
Iron Gate is the first obstruction to the salmon’s spawn. PacifiCorp operates a fish hatchery instead that produces an estimated 25 percent of the river’s Chinook salmon.
“Hatchery fish are kind of junk; it’s not really what we’re going for,” said Hoopa Billy Matilton, 25, standing on the bank of the Trinity as his friends lifted up salmon they had snagged in their nets.
They lay the fish onto a wooden plank, where Hoopa fisheries technician T.R. Maloney scrapped samples of their skin as part of the Trinity River restoration program.
They have good reason to continue documenting fish health.
In 2001, the federal government denied irrigation to thousands of acres of farmland in the upper basin in order to maintain proper flows. The restriction came during a drought, and 20,000 people protested. In 2002, the federal government allowed Klamath water to be diverted for irrigation.
That created low river flow, allowing for the rapid spread of disease that killed 68,000 salmon.
“It was like a salmon holocaust,” said Josh Strange, Ph.D., biologist for the Yurok tribe. “It was really difficult to see that kind of unnecessary death and destruction.”
In 2006, commercial fishing of salmon off the Pacific Coast was cut by 90 percent mostly because of the lack of fish off the Klamath River.
This year, for the first time, the Bush Administration and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger closed commercial and recreational salmon fishing off Oregon and California after the collapse of Sacramento River’s Chinook fall run, once the coasts’ most robust.
Most in the basin believe if the dams are removed, the river would soon return to its natural state.
The dam removal agreement would also support a $1 billion environmental plan that would restore fish habitat and guarantee water and low-cost electricity for farmers, who could also continue using federal wildlife refuges for farming.
The deadline for the agreement is June 30, 2009. The federal government would next study whether dam removal would be feasible and cost-effective.