Washington, DC – In an action celebrated by Klamath Basin Tribes, conservationists and fishing groups, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) today released a final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) recommending the removal of the lower four Klamath River Dams.
Dam removal on the Klamath will open up over 240 stream-miles of salmon and steelhead habitat that has been blocked to fish migration for over 100 years. The project, the largest of its kind in U.S. history, is funded by dam owner PacifiCorp and a voter-approved California bond measure.
The document for license surrender, decommissioning and removal of four dams – Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, J.C. Boyle and Iron Gate – contains the FERC staff’s evaluation of the environmental, cultural and economic impacts associated with dam removal.
“We can see the light at the end of the dam removal tunnel,” said Karuk Chairman Russell ‘Buster’ Attebery in a press statement. “I am so proud of everyone in our river communities that have worked so hard for the past 20 years to realize our vision of river restoration.”
“We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Tribal People and our allies who made this moment possible,” said Yurok Vice Chairman Frankie Myers. “We would not be here without their relentless advocacy.”
The FEIS was released nearly 20 years after a massive fish kill left over 60,000 adult salmon rotting along the banks of the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation in September 2002, a disaster that I was one of the first journalists to cover. The fish perished from disease spurred by low, warm water conditions under abysmal water management of the river by the G.W. Bush Administration.
"The fish kill is a lot worse than everybody thinks," said a shaken Walt Lara, then the Requa representative to the Yurok Tribal Council, in a phone interview with me on Monday, September 23, 2002. "It's a lot larger than anything I've seen reported on the T.V. news or in the newspapers. The whole chinook run will be impacted, probably by 85 to 95 percent. And the fish are dying as we speak. They're swimming around in circles. They bump up against your legs when you're standing in the water. These are beautiful, chrome-bright fish that are dying, not fish that are already spawned out."
The fish kill served as a lightning rod to unite Klamath River Tribes, environmentalists, fishing groups and the public around the cause of dam removal and salmon restoration on the Klamath, the second largest producer of Chinook salmon in California next to the Sacramento River at this time.
In addition to responding to and addressing comments on the Draft EIS, the FEIS evaluates all of the benefits and impacts of the proposed dam removal project.
In their FEIS abstract, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission states, “Project removal and implementation of mitigation measures proposed in management plans would protect environmental resources, restore project lands, minimize adverse effects, maximize benefits to protected fish, and restore the landscape of the areas that are currently impounded within the project reach to a more natural state. Commission staff recommends approval of the proposed license surrender, decommissioning and removal of the project with staff additional recommendations and mandatory conditions.”
The document also states, “The proposed action would result in benefits to water quality, aquatic resources, fisheries, and terrestrial resources used by all Tribes. These benefits would aid in the continuation and restoration of Tribal practices and traditions that have been adversely affected [by the dams].”
In addition, the document reveals, “The regional economy would experience a temporary, significant, beneficial effect. In the short term, increases in the workforce and expenditures associated with the construction and restoration activities would benefit the local economy.” (Section 3.16.10).
The arrival of salmon back to the Upper Klamath River once the dams are removed is eagerly awaited by members of the Klamath Tribes in Oregon, since these fish have been absent from the upper watershed for over 100 years.
“It has been more than a century since our people have seen c’iyaals (salmon) in our rivers and streams, so FERC’s quick pace completing the comprehensive review of dam removals will be sweet news for our community,” said Klamath Tribes’ Chairman Clayton Dumont.
The five FERC commissioners will consider the final FERC staff recommendations of the FEIS when they issue a final ruling on dam removal later this year.
“We appreciate the effort by FERC to complete the comprehensive review of dam removal in such a timely manner,” noted Amy Cordalis, Principal and Attorney, Ridges to Riffles Indigenous Conservation Group and Yurok tribal member and fisherwoman.
"This paves the way for the largest river restoration project in history to begin in 2023. This critical regulatory step is necessary for the United States to honor its legal obligations and uphold its trust responsibility to Klamath River Tribes,” said Cordalis.
Salmon returns are less than 5% of their historical abundance with some runs extirpated from the system, according to Cordalis. The dams deny salmon access to hundreds of miles of historical habitat, degrade water quality, and foster the spread of fish diseases, such as Ich and Columnaris.
Fishing group representatives say Klamath Dam removal will also lead to major salmon fisheries improvements “providing hundreds of new jobs to coastal salmon-dependent commercial fishing communities.”
“Klamath dam removal will restore salmon access to more than 240 stream-miles of once fully occupied but now blocked habitat, improve river conditions enormously and nearly double the Klamath salmon runs that many coastal communities depend upon for their livelihoods.,” said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), the U.S. West Coast’s largest organization of commercial fishing families.
“Dam removal is a prerequisite for restoring and revitalizing the Klamath Basin,” Brian Johnson, California Director for Trout Unlimited, concluded. “It’s the single greatest thing we can do to restore Klamath fisheries, bolster local economies, and improve water quality.”
What would happen if the dams aren’t removed? The FEIS document evaluated a no-action alternative, concluding that the status quo “would not address the water quality and disease issues which, when combined with the ongoing trend of increased temperatures, poses a substantial risk to the survival of one of the few remaining Chinook salmon populations in California that still sustain important commercial, recreational, and Tribal fisheries.” (FEIS xli)
Friday’s announcement appears to have arrived early; some were not expecting it until September. California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham applauded the FERC staff for “issuing the final EIS ahead of schedule” and for validating license surrender and dam removal as the “right thing to do.”
“While we continue to review the document, we welcome this critical milestone and look forward to advancing what will be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history and restoration of 400 miles of the Klamath River for the benefit of salmon, Tribes and communities in the basin,” said Bonham. “The final EIS along with the Department of the Interior’s recent funding for the Klamath River Basin under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and leadership from Oregon and California all point toward now being the time to solve many of the basin’s long-running restoration and water challenges.”
Mark Bransom, CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), said that KRRC and its partners are reviewing the 800+ page final EIS that describes the impacts and benefits of the project and adds further recommendations and conditions. He added that the final EIS “largely mirrors the very positive draft EIS issued back in February 2022.”
“KRRC is heartened by FERC’s thorough and timely environmental review of the project,” said Bransom. “Once all the necessary approvals are obtained, including a License Surrender Order, it will be full speed ahead to commence the largest dam removal and river restoration effort in U.S. history.”
Pending final regulatory approvals, KRRC said it expects dam removal activity to begin in 2023 and be completed in 2024, with the return of the river to a free-flowing condition.
KRRC said it will commence restoration activities immediately following dam removal and restoration of the project footprint will continue for several years.
The final EIS can be viewed on the KRRC website here.