Deal reached to take down Klamath River dams

It’s not every day that the Bush administration agrees to a plan that may actually help the environment. This event is even more of a huge deal because it concerns a river that’s been the focal point of a heated battle.

Yesterday, the Bush administration and PacifiCorp, a hydroelectric company, agreed to a Klamath River dam removal plan. While the plan doesn’t exactly make dam removal along the California-Oregon border a done deal, pending further studies and discussion over the next four years, the four dams in question could be removed as early as 2020.


From today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

The agreement…does not commit to the removal of the dams. Instead, it provides a framework for the various interest groups, government agencies and businesses to collaborate on environmental and economic studies. The plan, as it stands, is to finalize the agreement in June and then conduct studies until 2012, when the secretary of the interior would make a final decision.


“If the data collected in the next four years shows that removing the four dams is environmentally and economically prudent, then the target date for removal is 2020,” said Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne.”

While the deal is tentative, environmentalists are confident it will happen and laud the agreement as a major step forward in preserving the Klamath River's salmon population.

For those of you with unfamiliar with the Klamath River’s ongoing saga, let’s back up: The Klamath River, which runs through Oregon and California, once contained hundreds of thousands of salmon, which several American Indian tribes and a commercial fishery relied on. In 1909, construction of dams began, eventually blocking 300 miles of salmon spawning habitat.

A firestorm of political debate happened in 2002. Due to a drought, the Klamath River was experiencing low levels of water; scientists said that releasing water for irrigation (rather than keeping water flowing in the river itself) would adversely affect salmon populations, and would be in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Oregon's (mostly Repubiican) farmers were furious, leading to the intervention of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Republican Senator Gordon Smith was in a close re-election campaign, so Rove and Cheney used their influence to get water released to the farmers—a decision that resulted in the die-off of more than 33,000 salmon. Environmentalists and American Indians were outraged.

More from the San Francisco Chronicle:

The hydroelectric dams warmed the river water, allowing destructive parasites and blooms of toxic, blue-green algae to contaminate the water even below the dams. Water diversions to cities and for agriculture exacerbated the problem, according to fishery biologists.


The number of salmon now in the river is less than 10 percent of the historic population, and the fish are continuing to disappear, according to biologists and fishery experts.

It’s easy to see why fishing groups, tribes, and environmentalists are excited that the Bush administration and PacifiCorp (which is indirectly contrlled by Warren Buffett) are finally starting to do something to resolve this conflict. However, some are worried that the years it will take to study the impact of removal, and the destruction itself, could be too late for the salmon, which might not have time for the preparation of environmental impact statements and additional legislative heel-dragging.

Here’s hoping that a new administration will bring dam removal about soon—while the Klamath’s salmon still have a shot.

Meanwhile, California Senator Dianne Feinstein says she's brokered a deal to restore a dry stretch of the San Joaquin River where salmon—which used to spawn as far south as Malibu Creek—once thrived. If that and the Klamath breach happens, all that's left to save the west's salmon is to tear down four dams on the lower Snake River in Idaho that provide little electric power while killing innumerable fish. Oh, and end fish farming. And stop Pebble Mine. And...