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Landmark Klamath River restoration and dam removal agreements signed

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SALEM, Ore. – The world’s largest river restoration and dam removal effort kicked off in a spirit of celebration inside the grand rotunda of Oregon’s Capitol Feb. 18.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Governors Ted Kulongoski of Oregon and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California joined chairmen Arch Super of the Karuk Tribe and Thomas O’Rourke of the Yurok Tribe in California, and Joseph Kirk of the Klamath Tribe in Oregon in signing the agreements beneath a mural depicting Native fishermen at yesteryear’s tumultuous Celilo Falls.

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement aims to restore a mountainous land of rivers, tributaries and wetlands spanning the Oregon-California border.

Its sister Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, contingent on full funding and scientific study, will open hundreds of miles of the Klamath River closed to salmon for a century.

The agreements, five years in the making, signal a close to decades of bitter struggles between tribal, agricultural, environmental and governmental entities, and more recently dam owner PacifiCorp.

Federal water management practices over the past century had taxed the federally reserved fishing rights of the tribes of the Klamath Basin, testified the National Congress of American Indians in 2004. Development of irrigation and reclamation projects created non-sustainable crops in the historically arid Upper Klamath Basin that required high volumes of water. Water exported out of the basin for decades led to over-dependence by agriculture and stressed the fisheries.

“We had back-to-back disasters,” said Craig Tucker, Karuk Klamath Campaign coordinator.

Drought in 2001 spurred the federal government to increase water to protect two species of Upper Basin sucker fish, culturally important to the tribes, and the wild coho salmon under the Endangered Species Act. The move withheld irrigation water from farmers, pitting them against the tribes, conservation groups and federal agencies.

“It was hairy at times,” said Tucker, recalling the political backlash that ensued.

It got worse.

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The Bush-Cheney administration reversed the decision and restored irrigation, leading to the largest salmon kill in the history of the West. Some 70,000 salmon died in 2002, devastating the Klamath Basin tribes. It stunned the sensibilities of Yurok tribal members at the mouth of the Klamath River.

“Everyone sued everyone else,” said Tucker. “In the middle of this water catastrophe, the dams came up for re-licensing. Solutions were possible but only if people recognized the concerns of other people in the basin. We started negotiating.”

The agreements will restore more than 350 miles of historic salmon habitat and thousands of acres of wetlands, improve river flows and water quality, settle water-related litigation, increase irrigation certainty and affordable power options for agriculture, provide economic revitalization programs for tribal communities, and a coordination council to manage the watershed.

“The Klamath River [is] a stunning example of how cooperation and partnership can solve difficult conflicts,” Salazar said. “Let me say that as we look at the Department of the Interior and the trust responsibilities which we have as the United States of America, we will honor the trust relationship, the nation-to-nation relationship that we have with the Native American communities, the First Americans.”

“Change is happening and we invite people to join us,” said Yurok Tribe Chairman Thomas O’Rourke. “Legislation will take some time, but former adversaries are already working together to manage the basin, take care of our people, and craft a shared future. That’s what we’re celebrating here today.”

“This brings together dozens of groups that for years and years stood toe to toe, but now stand side by side united in this cause,” Schwarzenegger told the crowded room. “By finalizing that agreement we can say, ‘hasta la vista’ to the dams.

“I can already hear the salmon fish screaming, ‘I’ll be back!’”

Fifty organizations representing dam owner PacifiCorp, the Obama administration, three of the four Klamath Basin fishing tribes, several counties, agricultural districts and numerous conservation groups agreed to support the agreements. But there were dissenters.

Fish and wildlife in the basin’s Trinity River in California is integral to Hoopa Valley tribal customs, religion, culture, subsistence and ceremony. The agreements, Hoopa Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten said in a statement, undermine tribal rights, do not ensure dam removal, and rely on unfunded and unspecific fishery restoration goals. “We cannot stand behind deals that require the subordination of our rights, and that may never result in dam approval.”

A few others, including two environmental groups and a group representing irrigators also oppose the agreements.

The agreements could be a model for the nation, Salazar and Schwarzenegger said. Several Native peoples in attendance expressed hope that, even while dams in the Columbia Basin are not among those now slated for removal these agreements could pave the way to renewing voices at the legendary Celilo Falls that lie muffled beneath stilled waters behind The Dalles Dam.

For Karuk, Klamath and Yurok tribal perspectives on the agreements, visit For the Hoopa tribal perspective, visit For agricultural perspectives, visit