What will it take to actually get dams removed?

Finally, after a 50-year effort, four massive dams on the Klamath River in northern California and Oregon will begin to fall 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 harmed 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 cheer about. PacifiCorp, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett, will not have expensive fish ladders to install, and its share of the cost of dam removal has been passed on to taxpayers in both states.

Environmentalists are also hailing this latest victory for river regeneration, based on the Electric Consumers Protection Act of 1986. The law ordered operators of most federal dams to provide passageways for fish to swim upstream to spawn.

For officials in California and Oregon, along with farmers and others who had reached an agreement as far back as 2008, the dam removals signal that this long and emotional battle is finally over. And why has there been a settlement after all this time? A short answer is the growing reality of the increasing aridity of the West.

In 2001, another dry year in the upper Klamath, farmers woke up to find their front doors to irrigation water locked. It was done to preserve streams for endangered salmon, but for outraged farmers it meant their crops were destroyed and they lost anywhere from $27 million to $47 million. Death threats followed, along with shootings and even a farmer’s cavalry charge.

The newly elected Bush administration responded by making sure the farmers got their water, even though this triggered one of the largest 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 at its four fish-killing dams. After electric prices rose 1,000%, it drove everyone crazy and set the stage for a deal.

In a twist for the Bush administration, a pact was almost made in 2008 when Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who had been staunchly opposed to breaking dams, persuaded Oregon’s Democratic governor. Ted Kulongoski and Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to reach an agreement.

The deal had something for everyone: Klamath Tribes, with senior water rights, subordinated those rights for a large grant to buy land. The federal government paid half of the cost of removing the dams, and the state of California paid the other half.

Then a roadblock crept in: powerful Republicans opposed dam removal and the legislation that would have put the deal into effect.

But negotiations continued, this time without the federal government picking up any of the costs. As 2022 ended, California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, PacifiCorp, the tribes and others to celebrate the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of the dams coming down.

When they have the big party this summer as the dams buckle, I hope people remember the brave role of former Home Secretary Kempthorne in breaking the impasse over the dams back in 2008.

When the very first American dam broke, in 1999, I was in Augusta, Maine, to help celebrate. After Edwards Dam was breached, the Kennebec River ran free for the first time since novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne walked its banks 160 years before. On the south side of the river stood residents whose ancestors worked in the mills that the dam had powered. Many cried. It reminded me that change is never easy.

And in 2012, I celebrated with others when the first of two dams on western Washington’s Elwha River was breached. In both places, and as is the case for most of the 1,200 dams that have been removed since then, rivers have quickly returned to life.

I look forward to seeing the same amazing burst of renewal after the four lower Snake River dams finally fall.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a long-time reporter about the Northwest. Top photo — Copco No. 1 unit. One of four dams to be removed on the Klamath River; credit: Michael Weir/CalTrout

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