AP

"The run of salmon in the Klamath River this year is the heaviest it has ever known. There are millions of fish below the falls near Keno, and it is said that a man with a gaff could easily land a hundred of the salmon in an hour, in fact they could be caught as fast as a man could pull them in."

—Klamath Falls Evening Herald front page on Sept. 24, 1908.

Flowing over 250 miles from the high desert of southern Oregon through the Cascades Mountains before emptying out into the Pacific Ocean in northern California, the Klamath River and its Coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead runs were vital to Native American tribes for thousands of years before settlers arrived.

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But within decades of their arrival there would be half a dozen dams constructed on the river, effectively blocking salmon and steelhead migrations on what was once the third-highest salmon producing river on the West Coast. The river that was fabled for its millions of salmon each season saw significant decreases following dam construction.

But now after nearly a century, an agreement has finally been reached to remove four dams on the Klamath River by 2020 as the first step towards restoring the salmon and steelhead migrations in the Klamath basin.

The deal to carry out one of the largest dam removal projects in U.S. history was reached after years of effort by diverse stakeholders including the local Native American tribes, county, state and federal agencies, irrigators, farmers, and conservation and fishing groups.

"When the first dam went up in 1918 without fish ladders, our people were very concerned," said the chairman of the Klamath Tribes in Oregon’s Klamath Basin, Don Gentry. "They basically extirpated salmon from the Upper Klamath Basin and a lot of important tribal fisheries."

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The early dams were built on Klamath River without fish ladders or other protections to ensure the passage each year of thousands of salmon and steelhead.

Without the fish, a vital part of local tribes' way of life was missing, said Thomas P. O'Rourke Sr., the chairman of the Yurok Tribe in northwestern California near where the Klamath River enters the Pacific Ocean.

"You don't say Yurok without saying fish—they go hand in hand," O'Rourke Sr. said. "Our people depend on the river for our livelihood…in order for us to preserve our identity we very much need the river intact."

"It's our way of life that makes us who we are," he said.

The Klamath River in winter near Happy Camp, CA.
USFWS

The dams are spread across 65 miles of the Klamath River from southern Oregon to northwestern California. Their removal will also decrease the risk posed by toxic algae that builds up behind dams which can poison fish, O’Rourke Sr. said.

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“They say don’t eat the fish,” he said. “This place has been brought to despair since we were disallowed to continue managing our resources and our river.”

As a step toward restoring the river, O’Rourke Sr. said he welcomed the April 6 the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) signed by the U.S Department of Interior (DOI), the U.S. Department of Commerce, the dams' operator PacifiCorp, and the state of Oregon and California in Klamath, California.

"Today is a historic day where the parties who have worked for decades to restore the Klamath Basin are reaffirming their commitment to each other for the shared vision of fisheries restoration and irrigated agriculture co-existing as we move into the future," DOI Secretary Sally Jewell said at the signing.

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"This agreement is an important initial step as we work toward a comprehensive set of actions to advance the long term restoration and sustainability for tribes, fisheries, and agriculture and water users across the Klamath Basin," Jewell said.

Just 140,000 Chinook salmon are predicted for the fall migration this year on the Klamath River, according to the California and Oregon Departments of Fish and Wildlife. That's just a third of 2015's estimate and the second lowest since at least 1996. The extremely low estimates are the result of a combination of factors caused by climate change and the ongoing drought in the region.

Map of the Klamath River watershed.
Wikipedia

While the Klamath Tribes, as well as other local tribes including the Yurok and Karuk, have signed and welcomed the agreement—which followed years of grassroots efforts by the tribes and environmental activists—they warned that a comprehensive water deal to assist with salmon restoration was still missing.

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"Without a full package on restoration it's still a very difficult road to restore the salmon," Gentry said. Salmon need specific water quality and temperatures to thrive, and irrigators also need to be able to use water from the river for their livelihoods  So during dry years, there are often opposing claims to water—making it an issue that must be addressed. This type of overlapping and oftentimes conflicting water allocation is a major problem with regional water treaties across the country.

In 2001 amid severe drought conditions, water was shut off to Klamath basin irrigators and the next year salmon returned to a river with water levels that were too low and warm. Tens of thousands of the fish died as a result. That prompted local stakeholders to work together on a water deal to protect everyone's interests.

But 15 years later that part of the plan was left off of the KHSA, Gentry said.

That's because before the KHSA, there was a previous deal signed in 2014 called the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement which included actions to restore the river's ecosystem, fisheries, and salmon and steelhead migrations along with the four dam removals. But that agreement expired when the U.S. Congress adjourned in 2015 without authorizing them. The agreements had been controversial since the beginning, and many conservative lawmakers objected to the idea of dam removal.

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In order to move the project forward, the parties to the agreement decided to go through a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) process to remove the dams. That avoided the need for congressional approval.

“The majority of (the KHSA) can be done within the states’ governmental functions, we don’t have to go through Congress to make that happen which had been a roadblock in the past,” said O’Rourke Sr.

But it left out the hard-won water deal—and since that part of the process could not be handled through FERC, it was agreed in the KHSA that parties would continue to work on the water deal in a separate agreement.

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Although the dam removal project has been celebrated for its environmental benefits, the initial reason for the plan to remove the four dams was more practical than anything else, according to a senior official at the DOI.

"The amount of capital outlay to meet environmental standards would not be insignificant," the official, who did not wish to be named due to the sensitive nature of the topic, said. "That's really the impetus."

The dams' operator, PacifiCorp, learned in 2004 when it applied for re-licensing that it would need to bring the dams up to current environmental standards. That appeared to cost more and present more risks to PacifiCorp and its customers than removing the dams, the company said on its website.

"In our view we think people have begun to realize especially in the northwest that dams don't last forever … all dams do have an expiration date," said Jim McCarthy, communications director at WaterWatch of Oregon.

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The U.S. has around 84,000 dams with an average lifespan of 52 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), with thousands considered deficient and "high hazard." The number of high hazard dams is expected to increase, it added.

With the estimated cost of repairing those dams at around $21 billion, outweighing the cost of simply removing them, dam removals will likely increase in the coming decades, according to the ASCE.

WaterWatch has been involved in a number of dam removals in recent years in Oregon’s Rogue River Basin, McCarthy said. What he and researchers noticed was that the ecosystems and physical characteristics of waterways were quick to bounce back to their natural states after dams were removed.

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One of the dam removals WaterWatch advocated for was the Savage Rapids dam on the Rogue River—which like the Klamath River is a popular salmon and steelhead run. Oregon State University conducted a study on the river before and after the dam removal and found that within a year of removal, the river ecology was similar to upstream conditions where there had been no impacts from the dam.

That's what local tribes said they hope will happen in the Klamath River following the dam removals. But both Gentry, of the Klamath Tribes, and O'Rourke Sr. of the Yurok Tribe, said without a restoration plan, the salmon would not regain their former numbers.

"Without the whole package and restoration it's still a very difficult road to restore the salmon," Gentry said. "That's what's missing from these agreements—a real coordinated salmon restoration plan."

The water deal would also protect irrigators who use the water.

There are over 1,200 family farms and ranches in the Klamath Reclamation Project area. That was a 1905 project to create irrigable land on both sides of the California-Oregon border, according to the Klamath Water Users Association—a non-profit representing those farmers and ranchers.

A dry irrigation ditch in the Klamath Irrigation District, part of the Klamath Reclamation Project near Klamath Falls, Ore.
AP

Scott White, KWUA’s executive director, said a second agreement was signed along with the KHSA on April 6 that gave certain protections to local farmers and ranchers. The Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement will help irrigators avoid regulatory burdens associated with the return of fish to the Klamath basin, White said. One example is irrigators will be provided fish screens to prevent federally protected species of salmon from entering their property.

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But more importantly, “it provides commitments from the parties to continue working on a water deal, which is ultimately what we have been working towards for 15 years,” White said.

Despite the lack of a comprehensive water and restoration agreement yet, O'Rourke said he thought the KHSA was "a very good start.”

“With the dams removed, everything else becomes possible,” he said.