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Chris Aadland
Underscore News and ICT

Tribal nations and Native people are celebrating a decision made Thursday by federal regulators approving a plan for the largest dam removal plan in the country’s history.

The move is considered a crucial step in saving dwindling salmon populations but also as a sign the federal government is serious about respecting treaty rights and Indigenous culture.

“It's a historic change and it's really exciting,” said Amy Bowers Cordalis, a Yurok tribal citizen, attorney for the tribe and co-founder of a nonprofit aimed at protecting and restoring natural and cultural resources important to Native people. “And it's absolutely what they should do anyways and should have done a long time ago.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday voted unanimously to transfer ownership of four dams owned by utility company PacificCorp on the Klamath River in northern California and southern Oregon to the two states and a nonprofit formed to manage the project. The commission called the decision “historic” and “momentous” because tribal advocacy influenced the outcome. Some hope this might lead to greater consideration of treaty rights and Native culture in federal permitting decisions around power generation and dams.

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The decision is expected to allow the decommission and destruction of the dams and open up hundreds of miles of a river that once was one of the richest salmon rivers in the U.S. Since the four dams were built between 1918 and 1962, salmon have been blocked from reaching spawning areas, contributing to a drastic decline in the number of salmon in the river.

FILE - Jamie Holt, lead fisheries technician for the Yurok Tribe, right, and Gilbert Myers count dead chinook salmon pulled from a trap in the lower Klamath River on June 8, 2021, in Weitchpec, Calif. The largest dam demolition and river restoration plan in the world could be close to reality Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, as U.S. regulators vote on a plan to remove four aging hydro-electric structures, reopening hundreds of miles of California river habitat to imperiled salmon. Several tribes in the region, including the Yurok, have been fighting for years to see the dams come down to aid the recovery of struggling salmon populations. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard, File)

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” Yurok Chairman Joseph James said in a statement after the vote. “The people have earned this victory and with it, we carry on our sacred duty to the fish that have sustained our people since the beginning of time.”

The $500 million project – which regulators said will be the country’s largest dam removal and river restoration – is expected to lead to a few hundred jobs related to the project and up to 1,500 indirect jobs and be boon to businesses and contractors owned by tribal governments or citizens. A federal environmental impact analysis recommended that the project move forward in August.

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But driving the approximately two decade-long fight to remove the dams was an imperiled salmon population, which proponents said had declined to about 5 percent of its historical average and threatened to sever a connection to one of the most important pieces of historic and present-day culture and food for tribes who call the Klamath Basin part of their homelands.

Tribal leaders celebrated the decision, saying a free-flowing river in its natural state will lead to better water quality, better habitat for fish and other wildlife and help revitalize Native cultures that rely on salmon not just for sustenance, but view them as relatives or are otherwise crucial to ceremonial and cultural practices.

The decision isn’t just a victory for Native people who relied – and now are more hopeful they’ll continue to do so – on the river and its once-abundant salmon runs.

It also comes as the debate around hydroelectric power dam projects, like in the Columbia River Basin’s lower Snake River, and their future – and the negative effect they’ve had to Indigenous culture and people – intensifies.

The commission’s decision was a sign that the federal government, or at least Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was finally more serious about considering the impacts its decisions on project proposals and permit applications would have on treaty rights and Indigenous cultures, Bowers Cordalis said.

“Essentially FERC recognized that it's past with Indian Country and protecting tribal rights has been awful and that they are going to work toward making things better for Indian Country and that they’re going to try and protect tribal rights and protect tribal rights,” Bowers Cordalis, who has advocated for the move for years and was at Thursday’s meeting in Washington D.C., said in an interview with ICT and Underscore News.

For some, the decision to decommission four clean, renewable energy-producing dams wouldn’t make sense given the federal government’s desire to generate more electricity using zero-emission methods, commissioners said Thursday. And although removing the dams “makes sense in large part due to fish and wildlife protections,” FERC Commission Chairman Richard Glick said the commission’s order heavily relied not on energy production or conservation considerations, but rather the wishes and needs of Native nations and people.

“A number of years back, the commission did not think about the impact of our decisions on tribes,” he said. “That’s an important element in today’s order.”

Dam removal is expected as soon as next year and wrap up by the end of 2024.

Healing a river

When the four dams were built, they were built without any way for salmon, steelhead and lamprey to pass by, blocking their access to nearly 400 miles of spawning grounds upriver and in the river’s tributaries.

That’s led to the decline in salmon populations, which in turn motivated the push to see the dams destroyed. The dams have also led to decreased water quality, especially behind dams in reservoirs where warm water collects pollution, agricultural runoff and leads to harmful algae blooms and other fluctuations in water temperature that are detrimental to salmon.

Yurok Tribal Council Member Ryan Ray, in a video posted to the tribe’s social media accounts, said he had witnessed the declines in the salmon runs and river’s health as a lifelong resident of the sprawling Klamath basin.

For example, Coho salmon are considered threatened and the spring Chinook salmon run is nearly at an extinction level, according to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit entity created to oversee the project. The problem worsened to a point that the Yurok Tribe had to buy salmon for its annual salmon festival in 2017 and has had to cancel fall Chinook salmon fishing in recent years due to low populations

In the video, Ray said “a lot of prayers” were answered with the decision, thanking anybody who played a role during the effort “and stayed at the table,” including those who died before witnessing the decision, for fighting to see their “vision happen.”

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“Dam removal started out as a dream,” he said. “What that means to our communities, to everybody in the basin, is healing, not just for our river but for our communities.”

More modern dams on the river – which starts at Upper Klamath Lake, which is fed by a number of streams and other rivers, in arid southern Oregon through far northern California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean – north of the four soon-to-be decommissioned dams aren’t affected by the project.

If PacificCorp would have continued to operate the four dams, the company would have been required to modify them by adding fish passages to allow salmon to get upstream at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

And since the company said the dams only generated enough electricity to power about 70,000 – 2 percent of its electricity generation overall – when operating at full capacity, which was rare due to water levels often being too low and could be easily replaced by other sources of power from the company, it would be cheaper for PacificCorp and its customers to abandon the dams.

Dam removal wasn’t universally supported, however.

Critics have said the salmon populations won’t rebound as proponents expect because other factors outside of the Klamath Basin, like ocean conditions, are having a greater impact on the health and population.

They’ve also argued that the draining of reservoirs would lead to less waterfront property and decreased property value for those who own homes on reservoir shores, in addition to concerns like negative impacts to water wells and decreased water availability for irrigators, especially as sediment build up behind the dams washes away.

Still, in its environmental impact statement recommending energy commissioners approve the plan, federal regulators found that the benefits from improved water quality, habitat and other environmental improvements was greater than potential consequences.

Both California and Oregon as well as the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, governed by a board of members appointed by tribes, the states, conservation groups, local governments, irrigators and PacificCorp, will now take over ownership of the dams. The cost of the project will be paid for by PacificCorp and through bonds approved by California voters.

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation, and proponents, have also touted the economic benefits, like job creation, and elimination of potential increased costs to electricity utility customers due to the continued operation of the dams, as reasons to support it.

For the Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon, the commission’s decision will lead to one of its most important foods, salmon, returning to Klamath homelands, far upstream from where the river pours into the ocean, for the first time in over 100 years. Though the tribe has to deal with unresolved disputes over water rights in its homelands surrounding irrigation and dam projects, and drought, connected to Upper Klamath Lake and the upper range of the basin, leaders celebrated the ruling.

“The return of these fish will lead directly to both improved mental and physical health among our people,” Tribal Council Secretary Roberta Frost said in a statement.

Led by tribes

Without tribes and Indigenous people spearheading the effort starting, Thursday’s vote may have never happened.

The tribally-led efforts began in 2002 after water in the river was diverted for farmers, lowering water levels and causing widespread disease in what would become one of the largest salmon die-offs in the history of the western U.S. Tribes and Indigenous people kicked off lobbying efforts that included lawsuits and even traveling to Scotland, where PacificCorp’s then-parent company was based, to call for change at shareholder meetings.

In this photo provided by Frankie Myers, members of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes and their supporters gather on a sand bar in the Klamath River near Orleans, Calif., to watch the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meeting by satellite uplink on the fate of four dams on the lower Klamath River, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022. Federal regulators unanimously approved a plan to decommission and demolish the dams in the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history. (Frankie Myers/Yurok Tribe via AP)

After PacificCorp’s license for the dams expired in 2006, negotiations over the future of the dams between groups, like tribes, agencies and others led to a 2010 agreement, amended in 2016, over the future of the watershed that culminated in FERC’s Thursday decision.

The alarms raised by a coalition of tribal nations, like the Yurok and Karuk tribes, eventually led a diverse collection of other advocates, like conservation groups, to support the effort.

“The tribes were the ones that said ‘We need to take these dams out.’ The first time we said it, everybody looked at us like we were crazy and laughed,” Bowers Cordalis said. “We pushed forward and persevered and continued to push for dam removal.”

Then, when it was clear that it was cheaper to remove the dams than continue to operate them, she said “all of a sudden the tribal leadership looked pretty smart,” leading to more groups joining the effort and intensified discussions around the idea.

The dam removals are just the first step in healing the river and seeing salmon populations rebound, however. Habitat restoration work is expected to continue for years, according to the KRRC.

Regardless, Hoopa Valley Tribe Chairman Joe Davis said he was looking forward to the work ahead.

“Water and fish health are at the heart of our identity as Native people and we are looking forward to seeing a healthier watershed and fishery which will result in healthier communities for all Klamath Basin tribes,” he said in a statement. “Now we must keep the momentum going and we are looking forward to working with all of our neighbors and partners in that effort."

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This story is co-published by Underscore News and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.