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Largest dam removal project in the US: the debate goes on

  • Largest dam removal project in the US: the debate goes on
    The mouth of the Klamath River on the Pacific Ocean, Del Norte County, California. Credit: Wikipedia

The Klamath River, the second largest in California by discharge, flows through Oregon and northern California before it empties in the Pacific Ocean. For thousands of years Native American groups in the basin depended on Pacific salmon runs in the river. The Klamath River also provides irrigation water to farmers and homes have been built along its banks.

As part of a huge effort to restore the Klamath River, four hydroelectric dams will be decommissioned and removed on a 373-mile reach of the river. The project illustrates the debate between competing demands for water resources in the western U.S., reports Associated Press.

Although once a productive salmon river, the conditions for migrating salmon have deteriorated over the years in the Klamath, leading to steep declines in salmon populations. Changes in ocean conditions due to climate change as well as the degradation of fish habitat in the rivers tributaries have also contributed to the decline of salmon. While dam removal is a cornerstone of river restoration efforts, even its supporters realise that on its own it will not be enough to restore salmon runs.

The first negotiations among some Klamath River interests date back to 1998. The current Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement was amended in 2016, creating the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) to take title to the dams and carry out the actual project design and removal activities, estimated at about $450 million. The project is pending approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Those holding a stake in the basin’s water management are many: tribes, farmers, ranchers, homeowners, conservationists...Project supporters cite numerous economic and environmental benefits, including improvements to the local economy, enhanced river health, as well as benefits for electric customers. The expected increase in salmon production will benefit the commercial and recreational fishing industry, as well as tribal self-sufficiency. In addition, algae blooms that occur in reservoirs will be mitigated. PacificCorp, who holds the dams’ hydroelectric licenses, supports the demolition as preferable to the costly renewal of its now expired licenses, in the best interest of its customers.

On the other hand, opponents’ reasons to stop the project are wide-ranging. Owners of waterfront properties say their homes have already decreased in value. Although the four dams to be demolished are not used for irrigation, farmers fear they will set a precedent that could threaten other dams which they depend on. Some residents say the reservoirs provide a water source for fighting wildfires which would disappear.

The debate goes on. As large dams age and are no longer viable economically, together with the environmental trend to eliminate barriers that restrict native fish species, more and more dam demolition projects are planned in the U.S., with some 1,700 dams dismantled since 2012. If this project goes ahead, it would be the largest so far.

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