It’s been a long and strange journey to break through four dams. Hope others will follow

Finally, after 50 years of effort, four massive dams on the Klamath River in northern California and Oregon will begin to collapse in July.

For the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Shasta and Klamath tribes who have lived along this river since time immemorial, there is much to celebrate. They have long fought for the lives of the salmon who are injured by these dams and for their right to fish for them.

Even PacifiCorp, which marketed the electricity from the four hydroelectric dams, will also have something to celebrate. PacifiCorp, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett, will not have expensive fish ladders to install and its share of the cost of removing the dam has been passed on to taxpayers in both states.

Environmentalists are also hailing this latest victory for river renewal, based on the 1986 Electricity Consumer Protection Act. The law directed the operators of most federal dams to provide fish passages so they could swim upstream to spawn.

For officials in California and Oregon, as well as farmers and others who reached an agreement as early as 2008, the removal of dams signals that this long and emotional fight is finally over. And why was there a settlement after all this time? A short answer is the growing reality of the growing aridity of the West.

In 2001, yet another dry year in upper Klamath, farmers woke up to find their irrigation water supply valves locked. This was done to preserve flows for endangered salmon, but for outraged farmers it meant their crops were ruined and they lost between $27 million and $47 million. Death threats followed, along with shootings and even a cavalry charge of farmers.

The newly elected Bush administration responded by making sure farmers got their water, though it triggered one of the biggest salmon kills in history. The Klamath tribes were furious.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission began tackling the problem in 2007 by ordering PacifiCorp to install fish ladders on its four fish kill dams. After electricity rates shot up 1000%, it drove everyone crazy and set the stage for a deal.

In a U-turn for the Bush administration, a pact was nearly made in 2008, when Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who had doggedly opposed breaking the dams, persuaded Democratic Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski and Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to reach an agreement.

The deal had something for everyone: the Klamath tribes, with superior water rights, made those rights conditional on a large subsidy to purchase land. The federal government paid half the cost of removing the dams and the state of California paid the other half.

Then a stumbling block arose: Powerful Republicans opposed the removal of the dam and the legislation that would have put the deal into effect.

But negotiations continued, this time without the federal government bearing any of the costs. In late 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom joined Oregon Governor Kate Brown, PacifiCorp, tribes and others in celebrating the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of the dams to come down. .

When they throw the big party this summer as the dams crumble, I hope people will remember the brave role of former Home Secretary Kempthorne in breaking the deadlock over the dams in 2008 .

When America’s first ever dam was destroyed in 1999, I was in Augusta, Maine to help celebrate. After the breach of Edwards Dam, the Kennebec River ran free for the first time since novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne roamed its banks 160 years before. On the south side of the river were locals whose ancestors worked in the mills powered by the dam. Many were crying. It reminded me that change is never easy.

And in 2012, I celebrated with others the failure of the first of two dams on the Elwha River in western Washington State. In both places, and as is the case with most of the 1,200 dams that have since been removed, the rivers quickly came back to life.

I can’t wait to see that same incredible burst of renewal after the lower four dams of the Snake River come down.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit dedicated to stimulating lively conversation about the West. He is a longtime reporter on the North West.

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