A proposal to bring down four hydroelectric dams near the California-Oregon border on Thursday lifted a major regulatory hurdle, paving the way for the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history to save the migratory salmon at risk.
The action by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission comes after the demolition proposal nearly collapsed last summer, but a new deal and additional funding has kicked it back in. Thursday’s decision will allow the utility that manages the dams, PacifiCorp, to jointly transfer its hydroelectric license to the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation in Oregon and California.
Regulators have yet to approve the actual surrender of the license. Removal of the dam could begin in 2023.
The lower Klamath River tribes who saw the salmon struggle applauded the move. Salmon are central to the culture, beliefs and diet of half a dozen regional tribes, including the Yurok and Karuk – the two parties to the agreement – and they have suffered deeply from this loss.
This week, California accepted a petition to add Klamath-Trinity River spring chinook salmon to the state’s endangered species list.
The aging dams were built before current environmental regulations and essentially cut the 253 mile (407 kilometers long) river in half for migrating salmon, whose numbers are in freefall.
Coho salmon in the river are listed as threatened under federal and California laws, and their population has fallen from 52% to 95%. Spring chinook, once the largest run in Klamath Basin, has declined by 98%.
The fall chinook, the last to persist in significant numbers, have been so meager in recent years that the Yurok Tribe called off the fishery for the first time in memory. In 2017, they bought fish from a grocery store for their annual salmon festival.
Another tribe, the Karuk Tribe, said in a statement that the regulators’ decision âreflects the hard work of our partnership with PacifiCorp, California, Oregon and the Yurok Tribe. After the massive fish kills this year, we need to remove the dams more than ever. “
The dams do not store agricultural water, are not used for flood control, and are not part of the 200,000-acre Klamath Project, a more northerly irrigation project that straddles the Oregon-California border. Removing the structures would affect homeowners who live around the man-made lakes created by the dams.
If the dams remained, PacifiCorp would likely have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize the structures to comply with today’s environmental laws. As it stands, the utility has stated that the electricity produced by the dams is no longer a significant part of its electricity portfolio.
The demolition proposal fell through last summer after regulators initially refused to allow PacifiCorp to exit the project entirely.
A new plan unveiled in November appears to address concerns from regulators that the nonprofit overseeing the demolition would struggle if there were cost overruns or liability issues.
The new plan makes Oregon and California equal partners in demolition with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation and adds $ 45 million to the project’s $ 450 million budget. States and PacifiCorp, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway company, will each provide one-third of the additional funds.
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