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How Dam Removal Can Save the Klamath River

by DAN BACHER

Three new reports funded by the California Coastal Conservancy confirm that dam removal on the Klamath River will be beneficial for salmon and water quality without incurring any increased flood risk to downstream residents.

The studies demonstrate that removing the four large dams owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Corporation “will cause relatively minor negative effects in the short-run, will not require sediment removal, and will provide great benefits for the long-term health of the river and its fish,” according to a joint news release today from American Rivers, a national environmental group, and the Karuk Tribe of northern California.

“These new studies add to the already impressive library of scientific and economic reports that show dam removal to be a safe, affordable, and effective way to restore struggling runs of salmon,” said Steve Rothert, Director of the California Field Office for American Rivers.

Dam removal advocates from Tribal, fishing, and conservation communities praised the findings. “The data confirm what we have been arguing for years – dam removal is the best option on the Klamath,” said Karuk Vice Chairman Leaf Hillman.

The “Water Quality report” shows that the removal of the dams would eliminate or greatly reduce toxic blue green algae production and greatly alleviate releases of harmful nutrients from oxygen-starved reservoirs. Removal would also significantly decrease summer and fall water temperatures from 4-7° F, substantially increase dissolved oxygen levels, reduce dramatic fluctuations of pH levels and likely reduce levels of fish disease-causing parasites.

The “Downstream Biological Impacts study” concludes that although fish populations will suffer some negative impacts immediately following removal, this effect will be short lived. Specifically,

• Impacts to fall Chinook will be short-term, and the population should fully recover to pre-removal levels within five years.

• Spring-run Chinook should experience rapid recovery to pre-dam removal stock levels.

• Coho salmon should experience only short-term effects and populations will recover fully.

• Steelhead populations could be highly affected but should experience a strong recovery.

• Pacific lamprey are expected to recover relatively quickly from impacts.

The “Sediment Transport analysis” concludes that less than one-third of the sediment trapped by the dams will be transported downstream, while nearly all of the sediment that is transported will travel directly to the ocean without being deposited in the river. Flood risk will not be increased appreciably, while sediment concentrations will likely be significant during the first winter after reservoir drawdown.

After years of negotiations, PacifiCorp, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, recently agreed to an agreement in principle with the federal and state governments that could lead to dam removal after a series of studies are conducted.

“Removal of the dams is part of a broader agreement to restore the river and revive the basin’s fishing, farming, and tribal communities through watershed scale restoration, a water sharing agreement between agriculture and fisheries interests, and affordable power for local communities,” the groups stated. “When these dams come down it will be the biggest dam removal and river restoration effort the world has ever seen.”

Both agreements are controversial among the diverse Klamath Basin communities. The Karuk, Yurok and Klamath tribes, American Rivers and an array of fishing and environmental groups are supporting both pacts as necessary steps for dam removal and river restoration. On the other hand, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, Oregon Wild, the North Coast Environmental Center and others oppose them for a variety of reasons, including the lack of guarantees for dam removal and river restoration included in the agreements. Farming groups in the basin are also divided over support for the pacts.

The Klamath, flowing through Oregon and California, was once the third most productive salmon fishery on the West Coast after the Columbia and Sacramento rivers. Removing the four dams and restoring the river will boost imperiled salmon and steelhead runs by reopening access to over 300 miles of habitat and eliminating water quality problems caused by the reservoirs.

The studies were released at a time when California and West Coast fisheries are in their worst ever crisis because of decades of mismanagement by the state and federal governments. Salmon fishing in the ocean off California and Oregon was closed for the first time in 150 years in 2008, due to the unprecedented collapse of Central Valley fall chinook salmon populations. Although state and federal agency staff claim that “ocean conditions” are the cause, a broad coalition of Indian Tribes, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and conservationists point to dramatic increases in water exports out of the California Delta and declining water quality as the key factors behind the decline.

While ocean recreational and commercial salmon fisheries were closed in 2008 due to the collapse of Sacramento River salmon, the Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations severely restricted commercial salmon fishing off California and southern Oregon just two years earlier. The 2006 restrictions were imposed because of the low numbers of spawning chinooks expected to return to the Klamath that year, spurred by the Karl Rove-engineered fish kills of 2002. Hundreds of juvenile salmon perished that spring and over 68,000 adults died that fall from disease, fostered by low, warm water conditions resulting from a change in water policy that favored Klamath Basin farmers over salmon, steelhead and other fish.

DAN BACHER can be reached at: Danielbacher@fishsniffer.com

 

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Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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