US advances largest dam demolition in history

The demolition of four dams on the Klamath River in California is expected to open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat.

Iron Gate Dam on lower Klamath River
The Iron Gate Dam, powerhouse and spillway on the lower Klamath River near Hornbrook, California.
AP Photo | Gillian Flaccus, File

U.S. regulators approved a plan Nov. 17 to demolish four dams on a California river and open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat that would be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in the world, reports the Associated Press (AP).

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's unanimous vote on the lower Klamath River dams is the last major regulatory hurdle and the biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years. The project would return the lower half of California’s second-largest river to a free-flowing state for the first time in more than a century.

AP Photo | Nathan Howard, File
The Klamath River runs along Highway 96 near Happy Camp, California. 

According to AP, Native tribes that rely on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life have been a driving force behind bringing the dams down in a remote area that spans the California and Oregon border. Barring any unforeseen complications, Oregon, California and the entity formed to oversee the project will accept the license transfer and could begin dam removal as early as this summer, proponents say.

The damns produce less than two percent of electric company PacifiCorp's total power generation when they are running at full capacity, Bob Gravely, a spokesperson for the utility, tells AP. But they often run at a far lower capacity because of low water in the river and other issues, and the agreement that paved the way for last week’s vote was ultimately a business decision, he adds.

PacifiCorp would have had to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in fish ladders, fish screens and other conservation upgrades under environmental regulations that were not in place when the aging dams were first built. But with the deal approved last week, the utility’s cost is capped at $200 million, with another $250 million from a California voter-approved water bond.

The decision is in line with a trend toward removing aging and outdated dams across the U.S. as they come up for license renewal and confront the same government-mandated upgrade costs as the Klamath River dams would have had.

Across the U.S., 1,951 dams have been demolished as of February, including 57 in 2021, says a spokesperson for American Rivers, which monitors dam removals and advocates for river restoration. Most of those have come down in the past 25 years as facilities age and come up for relicensing.

Commissioners during the Nov. 17 vote called the decision “momentous” and “historic” and spoke of the importance of taking the action during National Native American Heritage Month because of its importance to restoring salmon and reviving the river that is at the heart of the culture of several tribes in the region.

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