US regulators vote on largest dam demolition in history – WNYT NewsChannel 13 | Team Cansler

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – The world’s biggest dam demolition and river restoration plan could come close to reality on Thursday as U.S. regulators vote on a plan to remove four aging hydroelectric power plants and reopen hundreds of miles of California’s river habitat to endangered salmon.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s vote on the lower Klamath River dams is the last major regulatory hurdle and biggest milestone before a $500 million demolition proposal that has been championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years.

Approval of the application for a license to operate the dams is the bedrock of the most ambitious salmon clean-up plan in history and if approved, the parties overseeing the project will accept the license transfer and could start removing the dam as early as this summer start. More than 300 miles (482.80 kilometers) of salmon habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries would benefit, said Amy Souers Kober, spokeswoman for American Rivers, which oversees dam dismantling and advocates for river restoration.

“This is an incredibly important milestone,” she said. “There are really important lessons for rivers and the conservation movement from this project, and the most important lesson is tribal leadership. Because of the tribes, these dams will be built and the flow will be restored.”

The vote comes at a critical moment as human-caused climate change is ravaging the western United States with prolonged drought, said Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers. He said if California’s second-largest river was allowed to flow naturally and its floodplains and wetlands function normally, those impacts would be mitigated.

“The best way to deal with increasing floods and droughts is to allow the river system to stay healthy and do its job,” he said.

“Rather than having reservoirs where a significant amount of that water evaporates, it’s better to let that river flow and allow the flood plains and wetlands to filter the water and bring it to the groundwater where it doesn’t evaporate.”

The Klamath Basin watershed covers more than 37,500 square kilometers and the Klamath itself was once the third largest salmon-producing river on the west coast. But the dams, built between 1918 and 1962, essentially cut the river in half and prevent salmon from reaching spawning grounds upstream. As a result, salmon runs have been declining for years.

Native American tribes who depend on the Klamath River and its salmon for their livelihoods were a driving force behind the demise of the dams. Members of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa tribes plan to light a bonfire and follow Thursday’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission meeting on a remote Klamath River sandbar via satellite link to symbolize their hopes for river renewal .

Yurok vice chairman Frankie Myers told The Associated Press ahead of the meeting that he was excited but also concerned about the outcome of the vote.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been so disappointed in the last two decades,” he said. “If there are still salmon in the water, they have a chance and we have a chance. …They will come down. You must come down. Our existence depends on it.”

However, plans to remove the dams have been controversial.

A group of homeowners living around Copco Lake, one of the major reservoirs, have fought plans to remove the dam for years, saying the value of their lakefront homes has plummeted. A coalition formed against the demolition plan argues that the money earmarked for demolition is insufficient and that cost overruns and liability issues would fall on taxpayers’ shoulders.

They also wonder if removing the dams will help restore the salmon, since changes in the Pacific Ocean are also affecting the fish, said Richard Marshall, director of the Siskiyou County Water Users Association.

“The whole question is, will this contribute to increased salmon production? It’s all to do with what’s going on in the ocean (and) we think that will prove to be a wasted effort,” he said. “Nobody has ever tried to solve the problem by taking care of the existing situation without just removing the dams.”

Taxpayers in the rural counties surrounding the dams are also upset about the project, which is being funded with $200 million from PacifiCorp and $250 million from a voter-approved California water bond.

U.S. regulators have hoisted flags about possible cost overruns and liability issues in 2020, all but scrapping the proposal, but Oregon, California and PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelectric plants and is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, have teamed up to add another $50 million in emergency funds.

The utility would incur high costs to add fish ladders and other environmental protections to the aging dams to renew its hydropower license, and in recent years it has diversified its energy portfolio enough to absorb the loss of the dams, the company said.

If regulators approve Thursday, Oregon, California, and Klamath River Renewal Corporation — the body set up to oversee the demolition and environmental mitigation — must sign the license submission, and then work can begin. Regulators could also approve it but add more specifications or reject it altogether.

If approved, Copco 2, the smallest dam, could be shut down as early as next summer, said Craig Tucker, adviser on natural resource policy for the Karuk tribe. In early 2024, the reservoirs behind the dams would be slowly drained in hopes of fully returning the river to its channel by the end of 2024, he said.

The scope of the project surpasses the largest ever levee breach in the United States, when two century-old levees on the Eolwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula were breached in 2012, said Kober of American Rivers. Environmental experts are not aware of any other river restoration project in the world on a larger scale than that planned for lower Klamath, she added.

As of February, 1,951 dams had been demolished in the US, including 57 in 2021, the organization said. Most of these have declined over the past 25 years as facilities have aged and will need to be re-licensed.

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