Frankie J. Myers
Vice-Chairman, Yurok Tribe Tribal Council in the Klamath Basin
In 2010, national headlines declared the largest dam removal project in US history was poised to move forward. Four large dams along the Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern California would be removed, restoring one of America’s greatest salmon rivers and revitalizing the tribal communities that have depended on salmon since the dawn of time. Agricultural communities throughout the Basin and families that depend on commercial fishing for survival would also benefit from revitalized salmon runs and a healthy river.
It’s now 2020 and the dams remain in place, Klamath salmon are closer to extinction, and tribal communities still suffer a profound loss of culture. We have even been forced to import salmon in order to hold our annual Salmon Festival in recent years, much to the shame of our elders. Like many rural communities, the tribes are simply seeking to be self-sufficient.
What happened? After all, these are classic deadbeat dams. They do not provide any water for agricultural irrigation or residential use. They don’t provide flood control. They don’t even generate enough energy to justify the cost of a new license to operate. All they really do is kill salmon and leave our river plagued by massive blooms of toxic blue-green algae.
(See related: Federal regulators clarify path to Klamath Dam removal)
It’s a classic tale of corporate America exploiting rural communities without accountability. While dam owner PacifiCorp works to delay dam removal, tribal communities continue to pay the price.
Klamath Basin tribes have been fighting for decades to see these dams removed. We protested. We fought. We negotiated. And, finally, we entered a partnership with dozens of public agencies, commercial fishing groups, conservationists, and PacifiCorp to chart a path forward that included dam removal plans.
The broad coalition, with the full support of the States of California and Oregon, brimmed with hope and the promise of a revitalized river economy and healthy watershed. But regulatory agencies and environmental reviews have dragged on for years despite the declining health of Klamath salmon populations.
This July, after years of delay, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled on the question of whether PacifiCorp could transfer ownership of the dams to a non-profit organization that would, in turn, remove them. This approach would allow PacifiCorp to cover roughly half the cost of dam removal and then walk away from the project, free of liability.
While FERC signaled general support for the plan, the commissioners disagreed with the idea that PacifiCorp could abandon Klamath communities before removal is completed. Now the company is balking at the idea of sharing some modest amount of responsibility for finishing the job. But PacifiCorp must be realistic about its options and its obligations. Relicensing the dams and retrofitting them for fish passage will lead to years of acrimonious disputes, massive costs, and a betrayal of the sacred promise to restore the river.
With the dam removal agreement in place, the company’s financial contributions to the project are capped at $200 million. The organization charged with removing the dams has taken extraordinary measures to ensure the project will come in on budget and to minimize risks to PacifiCorp from future claims. The dams will likely be removed in 2022 if PacifiCorp will agree to these terms.
As PacifiCorp delays, the time for salmon and the people who depend on them is running out. The dams are killing what’s left of the Klamath River’s salmon runs and it is long past time to take them out.
Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is PacifiCorp’s parent company. Several of Berkshire Hathaway’s major shareholders, including Blackrock and Bill Gates, recently emphasized the growing importance of considering equity and environment in investment. Removing the dams is equitable, good for the environment, and makes economic sense. Berkshire Hathaway should follow FERC’s order and do its part to get dam removal over the finish line.
The Klamath dams are not a money-making asset for corporate shareholders. They are nothing more than a symbol of the colonization that robbed us of our traditions, our primary source of sustenance, and our heritage.
Removing them won’t reconcile all the injustices visited upon the Klamath’s Native people, but it’s a great start.
We invite Mr. Buffett to join us on the right side of history, which, in this case, is also in his economic self-interest.
Frankie J. Myers is the Vice-Chairman of the Yurok Tribe Tribal Council in the Klamath Basin.