Klamath Dams are driving salmon to extinction

July 23, 2021
Klamath Dams are driving salmon to extinction

And, they are not helping people, either

The Oregon Council of Trout Unlimited represents 3,800 conservation-minded anglers across Oregon. We are known for our stream habitat restoration work and our reliance on solid science to inform our programs and views.

One of the most important watersheds in which we are invested is the Klamath River. The Klamath was once the third-most productive salmon river on the West Coast, but its salmon and other native fish populations have declined precipitously and the multi-species fisheries this river supported historically are now in deep trouble.

Coho salmon are now listed as threatened under federal and California law. Spring chinook salmon, once the Klamath Basin’s dominant run, have decreased by nearly 98% and now approach extinction. Fall chinook populations — even heavily supplemented by hatchery production—have been so poor the past few years that the Yurok Tribe had to suspend fishing for the first time in the Tribe’s recorded history.

Klamath River salmon are both sacred to local Tribal cultures and a keystone species essential to the resilience of the entire river ecosystem. The current desperate shortage of water in the Klamath Basin is exacting a heavy toll on them, and on everyone else.

While we can’t do much to make it rain or snow more, we can take other actions that would help all the basin’s residents. In particular, we can follow through on a multi-party agreement, twenty years in the making, to remove four old hydroelectric dams.

The Iron Gate, Copco I & II, and J.C. Boyle dams are outdated for their original purpose (energy production). Three of the four produce so little energy they are money-losers. These dams also provide zero water supply benefit, for agriculture or anyone else. Moreover, these dams completely block fish access to more than 400 miles of historic habitat and create some of the worst water quality in the nation.

Twenty-three parties, including PacifiCorp (the utility company that now owns the dams, and doesn’t want them anymore), the States of Oregon and California, Tribes, commercial fishing groups, federal agencies, and TU and other conservation organizations have signed an historic settlement agreement that is centered on the removal of these obsolete, polluting, fish-killing dams.

Some have argued that the cost of removing the dams and restoring the project footprint will be far more than is estimated, due to the spike in cost of construction materials over the past year. But the dam removal project is a deconstruction project, and involves tearing down and hauling away old concrete, not pouring it.

The Public Utility Commissions of Oregon and California — whose charge is to protect ratepayers — have already determined that removing the four Klamath dams is in the best interest of ratepayers in both states. While the removal project may see some cost escalation due to the drawn-out federal permitting process, the existing $450 million budget has built-in contingency funds to cover cost overruns.

In addition, the States of Oregon and California and PacifiCorp have agreed to chip in an additional $45 million, if needed. Lastly, the cost of upgrading the dams so they could continue to operate for hydropower production (while enabling fish passage) would be far greater than the cost of taking them out, under any scenario.

The plan for removing the old Klamath dams — and the budget for doing so — has been vetted thoroughly by independent experts and approved by federal and state regulators. Restoring the free flow of the Klamath River is one thing we can and should do as soon as possible to help all Klamath Basin’s residents, human and wild alike.Photo Gary Lewis/Bulletin file


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