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Busting Up Klamath River Dams Could Be Boon to Tribes and Salmon

A story about removing Klamath River dams, which could be beneficial to salmon and local American Indian tribes.
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A plan to remove four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California could be a great start for the recovery of decimated salmon runs in the Northwest. What’s even more alluring is the possibility that it’s not too late to save tribal economies that were built on the spectacular fish.

Since time immemorial, according to tribes in that area, salmon in the Klamath River basin were the basis of their diet, their trade and barter systems, their religious ceremonies, their communities—their very lives. Six tribes in the basin have been collectively called the Salmon People: the Yurok, Karuk, Klamath, Quartz Valley, Hoopa and Resighini.

Dams for hydropower and irrigation, along with other insults to the ecosystem, have gutted the salmon runs. At one time, various runs of chinook, coho and steelhead salmon came inshore multiple times each year. Now, tribal and non-tribal fishers alike are relying on a single run, the fall Chinook run. Over the past century, the number of salmon in the run has dwindled from millions of fish to less than 100,000 in most years.

The removal plan, detailed in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, calls for the removal of the Iron Gate, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and John C. Boyle Dams, which were all designed to generate hydropower. (Two irrigation dams in the upper Klamath—the Keno and Link River dams—will be left alone.) The proposal is the culmination of years of effort by various groups, and it has the backing of several of the major fishing tribes on the Klamath, as well as farmers who depend on its water for irrigation. In recent years, it has also gained the support of PacifiCorp, Warren Buffet’s power company, that owns the dams, because legally mandated alternative technologies—fish ladders and turbine screens—would actually be more expensive.

Taking out the dams will allow the fish to return to the cold-water mountain streams where they spawned for thousands of years and potentially survive even in the face of climate change, says Mike Belchik, a fisheries biologist for the Yurok Tribe in California. “We need to get these dams down and get these fish to these cold-water springs,” he said. “That’s their future.”

Members of the Yurok and nearby Karuk tribes hope that dam removal will also give them a brighter future, that it will open the door not just for healthier fish but also for a resurgence of the once-strong tribal economies that relied on salmon.

The Fish Trickle-Down
Troy Fletcher, a Yurok tribal member and the tribe’s acting executive director, points out that when the dams started going up in 1917, it was “just one more wrong perpetrated on the Yurok people.” By then, agribusiness monopolies and blocked access to the Klamath fishery had already begun to cripple the Yurok fishing economy and lifeway. “There’s an impact that has occurred to the tribal social structure because of the lack of access to fish that reverberates around and through the tribal society,” he says. “Our children and our grandchildren are taught how to fish. They are taking care of fish and giving fish away to elders. Those are activities that hold a family together, and the family holds the community together.” Drug and alcohol abuse, health issues and the exodus of youth are all linked, Fletcher says, to the lack of salmon.

Tribal members have coped with the imperiled fishery by working in non-tribal cities and towns, in the timber industry and—with the support of the tribe—by going to college. As a result, Fletcher says, “we have a variety of tribal members who do a variety of things.” Despite that, “every tribal member who is alive today…have all been impacted by the dams and other wrongs that have been perpetrated on the Yurok people.”

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Dam removal could be a boost for tribal economies and for the Klamath River Basin. Just removing the dams is a project that will create jobs and inject some much-needed cash into the local service-sector economy. And when the dams are gone, fisheries are expected to double in size. But just as salmon restoration calls for long-term and creative solutions beyond dam removal, the social and economic problems related to the decline of the fisheries will require complex and sustained efforts, Fletcher says. “There’s been a lot of damage, and there’s a lot of healing that needs to happen in terms of making sure subsistence and secondary opportunities as they relate to the fishery are sufficient to meet our needs.”

Tribal members have already rallied around the health of the Klamath, which has been invigorating for those individuals, and for the tribes as a whole. “As we started to gain momentum and reach out and form partnerships and this thing became more and more real, our youth and membership…really provided the leadership to push this over the top,” Fletcher says.

Cracks in the Dam Coalition
The Hoopa Tribe, whose reservation lies at the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, has rejected the dam-removal proposal along with two other small, federally recognized tribes, the Resighini and Quartz Valley. “We definitely have been attentive to and supportive of reintroduction of fish to the upper basin and improvements to water quality that would come from dam removal,” says Mike Orcutt, director of the Hoopa Tribe’s fisheries department.

But Orcutt says the tribe is concerned that post-dam restoration projects outlined in the Klamath proposals won’t be adequately funded, especially since those funds would require Congressional approval in a tough economic climate. Perhaps most alarming for the Hoopa people is that the agreements are also supposed to settle long-standing adjudications of tribal water rights. “We would not waive our rights to contest the flow allocations in the Klamath Basin Restoration Act,” Orcutt says. “We said so [up front] and what then got drafted was that the feds would waive that right for all Klamath tribes.” He says the Hoopa Tribe wants to be able to renegotiate flow allocations, especially if water and climate conditions worsen in the basin. “It’s a subtle form of termination,” he says. “This tribe didn’t agree to that, and yet the U.S. says they will do it on our behalf.”

Furthermore, the Hoopa are concerned that the Klamath proposals don’t go far enough to safeguard the Trinity, a tributary of the Klamath where the Hoopa worked tirelessly to secure federal environmental protections. Hoopa tribal attorney Tom Schlosser says the dam-removal proposal allows farmers to divert too much water, increasing the risk for fish kills that would impact both the Klamath and the Trinity rivers. “The best illustration is what happened in 2002,” he says. “Poisonous water conditions occurred way downstream from the confluence with the Trinity, near the mouth. The fish that were returning then were principally fish heading for the Trinity. On their way back up, they were killed.”

Schlosser penned a recent review in the Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy in which he argued that “the agreements prioritize the water rights of non-Indian irrigation districts and utility customers over first-in-time Indian water and fishing rights.”

Tough Road to Paddle
Even though the dam-removal plan has the backing of the majority of Klamath shareholders, it faces a journey that appears nearly as full of obstacles as the salmon runs it’s designed to restore. That’s primarily because the plan must earn Congressional approval—and ultimately the sign-off of the Interior Secretary—by March of next year. Backers of the plan had hoped legislation would be on its way through Congress by now, but their efforts were slowed by the country’s economic woes.

Fletcher says there’s still hope for meeting the March deadline. “The tribe has been working with our other allies in Washington, D.C., and we are working to get something introduced.”

The legislation won’t request any Congressional funds for the actual removal of the dams—the various interest groups have pledged the necessary $450 million for that—but Congress would be required to approve up to $500 million over the next decade for the companion projects necessary to restore fish habitat, such as replanting stream sides, restoring water quality and working with farmers and ranchers on water conservation. Without those restoration projects, the plan’s backers say, dam removal won’t go nearly far enough to restore salmon runs. “It’s very important to understand that these agreements represent a milestone, but we’re on a long journey,” Fletcher says. “We’re not done.”