Salmon Says, Tear Down the Dams

In a remote corner of Northern California, a water war—as pretty much everyone is apt to describe it—has been smoldering for the better part of three decades. Even as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calls for more surface storage (read: dams) to address California’s water problems, a growing consortium of interests has been calling for the removal of dams obstructing the flow of the Klamath River.

Constructed between 1908 and 1962 by the PacifiCorp power company, the seven hydroelectric dams ensure delivery of hydroelectric power to ratepayers in Northern California and southern Oregon, as well as water to upper Klamath Basin farmers around the small Northern California town of Yreka. At that time, it was assumed that salmon could adapt to dams and a hatchery system. Instead, the dams have delivered unintended results: every summer a toxic algae bloom in the reservoirs creates a public health hazard as well as a danger to wildlife and pets. This “salmon without rivers” system (as one critical biologist called the scheme) does not work: the dams have greatly reduced the number of Chinook and Coho salmon (a federally endangered species) and Steelhead that return annually to the river. The four lower dams (the first ominously named Iron Gate) have become emblematic of the problems associated with water and hydroelectric projects in the American West.

The long-running conflict has pitted upper basin farmers and PacifiCorp against fishermen, Native American tribes, and conservation groups. But now, participants in one of the West’s most bitter water wars may finally sign an armistice. Following two years of negotiations, stakeholders released a draft of a settlement agreement on January 15 that could result in the demolition of four of the dams, giving farmers more irrigation water and, hopefully, giving salmon a chance to thrive.

A federal order, issued in early 2007 by the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had provided an early nudge in this direction. It mandated that before PacifiCorp could renew its expiring dam licenses, the company had to spend approximately $300 million to build “fish ladders” that would allow fish to swim through the structures. It would be much cheaper, according to a study published later that year by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to just get rid of the dams altogether.

If PacifiCorp, owned by financier Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, signs the agreement, it would set a precedent for how water is allocated and delivered to urban and agricultural users in the West. While the 20th century was the great dam-building epoch, during the 21st century the tide has turned towards removing dams, restoring the environment, and finding alternative sources that provide energy without the deleterious effects of hydroelectric projects. The next few years could see the removal of some of the most controversial dams, including the Klamath dams and the four lower dams on the Snake River.

This change is already underway in other parts of the American West: In 2007, dams were removed from the Sandy River in Oregon, and dams on the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula are slated for removal by 2009. If the four dams on the Klamath come down, it would be what the Washington Post dubs the “largest dam-removal project in world history.” Yet the growing dam removal movement conflicts with the Schwarzenegger administration’s push to build expensive and only marginally useful new dams in California (see story on page 27).

For those who favor the dams’ removal, there is no time to waste. In 2006, the commercial ocean salmon fishing season was almost completely shut down to protect the record low returns of salmon to the Klamath, and fishermen and others affected by the closure were recently given $61 million in federal disaster relief. The weak Klamath stock has shortened seasons and made it difficult for fishermen to make a living. The negotiations hold the promise that some day in the future—perhaps in a decade—fishing could once again have a full season.

Last summer, before negotiations had reached a head, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), a nonprofit founded by commercial fishermen to address destruction of salmon spawning habitat, organized a tour of the mid-Klamath area (the ancestral home of the Karuk tribe) to signal urgency about the dams’ impact on salmon runs and coastal fishing communities. I came along as an AmeriCorps volnteer for IFR. For IFR project director Sara Randall, the goal was to showcase restoration work performed by local nonprofits and government agencies—even as she pointed out that true restoration depends upon the removal of the dams and the increase of free-flowing water. The tour also gave stakeholders a chance to meet one another and share ideas about restoring the river, and to remind politicians that many of their constituents would like to see these dams removed.

A slight woman with an activist’s zeal, Randall had joined an AmeriCorps program to “save salmon.” In recent years, she found another mission: saving fishermen. She now counts many friends in the fishing industry who have been affected by the dwindling Klamath stocks. As the tour participants gathered for a rafting trip, Randall remarked, “Fishermen are the last cowboys. Today everyone works in cubicles and doesn’t know how to do anything else.”

Mike Hudson came on the tour to give a salmon fisherman’s perspective—and also to go rafting. Hudson represents a new kind of fisherman in California, one steadily replacing the ethnic family fishermen since the 1960s. Modern salmon fishery, running from Santa Barbara north into Oregon, was established in the early part of the 20th century by Sicilian and Portuguese immigrants. But as second-generation sons assimilated into American culture, many abandoned their fathers’ professions—Joe DiMaggio famously did not like the smell of his father’s boat. During the ’50s and ’60s, teachers would often spend their summers plying the waters off the coast, and they were able to earn more in a summer than they did during the school year. Independents started entering the fishery, attracted by flexible hours, the freedom, and the stunningly beautiful California coast.

Northern California’s salmon fishery boomed, with Fort Bragg becoming a major producer with its eight processing plants. But the construction of dams on every major river in California slowly reduced the number of salmon over the latter half of the 20th century, reaching a full-blown crisis by the ’90s. Today Fort Bragg and many other coastal communities now depend on tourism.

Originally from Germany, Hudson became a salmon fisherman in his late thirties; he previously made his living as a Berkeley electrician and blues musician. He takes the dams personally—they’re destroying his chosen profession. Hudson had made the trip up to Klamath to talk to Ron Reed, the Karuk tribe’s cultural biologist, famous within salmon circles for his impassioned public speeches at rallies and protests. Hudson wanted to enlist the help of the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa tribes, in a benefit concert for salmon he’s organizing. The Karuk have been one of the most active groups agitating for the removal of the dams, as well as one of the groups most severely impacted by them.

Hudson met up with Reed just before the tour of Ishi Pishi Falls, the center of the earth in Karuk cosmology, and where Karuk tribal members still use traditional dip nets to catch salmon. Reed envisions a time when the Klamath dams will be removed, and salmon will return in numbers large enough to harvest so that—after a hiatus of nearly a century—salmon may again become the center of the Karuk diet. He believes restoring the salmon runs is essential to repairing health challenges that his impoverished tribe faces.

A powerfully built man in his forties, Reed could be at any tailgate party for the Silver and Black. Sporting a bandana and cut-off T-shirt and a goatee, Reed bounded down the steep mountain at Ishi Pishi Falls in flip-flops. Ishi Pishi Falls is not so much a waterfall as a steep series of rapids, boulders, and pools. The sound of rushing water made it hard to hear, but this was a speech Reed had given before, and he could project his voice. He pointed out the mountains that surround the falls and mentioned how the falls and the course of the river itself have changed since European settlement. Mostly he talked about fishing—about how it is a rite of passage for a Karuk boy to come to the falls with his father and learn to fish for salmon and lamprey.

But he admitted that his cause has been a difficult one. “You talk and talk to all these people, and most of the time you know it won’t do any good,” he said. “But you hope that one time you talk to the right person who might do something to help us, to change the situation out here.”

After years of struggle, Reed finally may have found the right time and the right people. Hudson’s SalmonAid benefit concert will be held this May in Oakland’s Jack London Square, with help from Ron Reed and the Karuk tribe in addition to many other conservation and recreational fishing groups. The concert will bring publicity to the Klamath while PacifiCorp considers the proposed agreement, and while the many groups with an interest in the Klamath River hash out their differences.

An environmental group, Oregon Wild, has already denounced the draft agreement for guaranteeing farmers too much water in drought years, although supporters of the draft agreement contend that the water guarantees to farmers would not threaten salmon runs. The Hoopa tribe on the Trinity River, a tributary of the Klamath, has not signed on. Those who support the draft agreement, including the Karuk tribe and IFR, argue that compromises are necessary, and hard-line positions will only extend the impasse.

Whether the dams will stay or go is still an open question. When the dams came up for relicensing under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2006, a number of factors favored their removal. The dams now must comply with the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, neither of which existed when the dams were built. The dams are no favorite in the court of public opinion: the public was particularly unhappy after 70,000 adult salmon died in the river in 2002. The dams also have become a financial liability to PacifiCorp; two studies have shown that if costly mandatory salmon mitigation measures (mostly fish ladders) are integrated into the relicensed dams, the dams would no longer turn a profit.

Despite press releases and public relations bluster, it’s likely that PacifiCorp wants to relieve itself of a financial liability as cheaply as possible. However, who will pay for the estimated $1 billion removal of the dams has proved to be a major sticking point. The draft agreement assigns most of that cost to the federal government. As the economy is likely headed into a recession and the federal deficit grows ever larger, federal appropriations may become difficult to obtain, and the state is an unlikely source of money. PacifiCorp may choose to indefinitely renew its FERC license on temporary one-year licenses.

With the Democrats already controlling Congress, PacifiCorp may try to cut a deal while the Bush administration, which has actively supported both PacifiCorp and Klamath Basin farmers, is still in power. But if a back-door deal isn’t cut, PacifiCorp’s signature on the draft agreement and $1 billion will resolve the Klamath water war.

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