‘Significant’: US advances largest dam demolition in history

PORTLAND, Oregon – U.S. regulators on Thursday approved a plan to demolish four dams on a California river and open up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat. It would be the largest dam removal and river rehabilitation project in the world.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s unanimous vote on the lower Klamath River dams is the final regulatory hurdle and biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists. The project would restore the lower half of California’s second largest river to a free-flowing state for the first time in over a century. Native American tribes who depend on the Klamath River and its salmon were a driving force behind the demolition of levees in a remote area that straddles the California-Oregon border. Barring unforeseen complications, Oregon, California and the entity formed to oversee the project will accept the license transfer and could begin dam removal this summer, advocates said.

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” Yurok Chairman Joseph James said after the vote. “The people have earned this victory, and in doing so we fulfill our sacred duty to the fish that have fed our people from the beginning of time.”

The dams produce less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s electricity generation — enough to power about 70,000 homes — when running at full capacity, said Bob Gravely, spokesman for the utility. But they often run much lower because of low river water and other issues, and the deal, which paved the way for Thursday’s vote, was ultimately a business decision, he said.

PacifiCorp would have had to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in fish ladders, fish grates and other conservation improvements to comply with environmental regulations that didn’t apply when the dams were first built. However, utility costs are capped at $200 million, with an additional $250 million from a water bond approved by California voters.

“We are closing coal-fired power plants and building wind farms, and it all has to pay off. It’s not a one-on-one,” he said of the demolition. “You can offset that electricity by how you run the rest of your facilities or by making energy efficiency savings so your customers use less.”

The project is also the most ambitious salmon restoration plan — measured by the number of dams built and the amount of river habitat that would reopen to salmon — making it the largest of its kind in the world, said Amy Souers Kober, spokeswoman for American Rivers.

More than 300 miles (483 kilometers) of salmon habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries would benefit, she said.