Start of the Largest Dam Dismantling Project in the US Fuels Tribal Hopes for Renewal

by Gabriel Martinez
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The most significant dam deconstruction project in American history has kicked off on the California-Oregon boundary, which is set to continue until the close of next year with the aid of heavy-duty equipment and detonations.

However, demolishing the dams is just the tip of the iceberg. The following decade will see a formidable task where workers, in collaboration with Native American tribes, will plant and supervise nearly 17 billion seeds in an effort to revive the Klamath River and its adjoining territory to its pre-dam condition, which dates back more than a hundred years.

This dismantling is an element of a broader nationwide initiative to reestablish the unimpeded flow of the country’s rivers and regenerate habitats for fish and other wildlife. As reported by the pro-river group American Rivers, over 2,000 dams had been taken down in the US by February, most of them within the past quarter-century.

The elimination of four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River represents the greatest achievement and challenge of this initiative. By the end of next year, when the demolition concludes, over 400 miles (644 kilometers) of river will be accessible again for endangered fish species and other wildlife. In comparison, the removal of 65 dams last year reconnected a combined total of 430 miles (692 kilometers) of river.

The undertaking will drain three reservoirs covering about 3.5 square miles (9 square kilometers) near the California-Oregon border, revealing soil that hasn’t seen sunlight in over a century.

For the last five years, Native American tribes have manually collected seeds and transported them to nurseries, with plans to plant them along the banks of the newly-liberated river. Helicopters will transport hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs for planting on the banks, including clusters of tree roots to form habitats for fish.

While such growth usually spans decades naturally, officials are accelerating the process to combat the intrusion of foreign plant species like starthistle, which outcompete native plants.

Dave Meurer, director of community affairs for Resource Environmental Solutions, the company spearheading the restoration project, stated that they aim to provide nature with a head start in response to the question of why not let nature resume its course.

PacifiCorp, a power company, built the dams starting in 1918 for electricity generation. These dams disrupted the natural river flow and salmon life cycle. The fish are culturally and spiritually important to several Native American tribes, who traditionally relied on the significant salmon migrations returning to the rivers each year.

Federal regulators approved a dam removal plan last year, sparked by decades of advocacy from Native American tribes and environmental groups after a bacterial outbreak in 2002 due to low water levels and warm temperatures killed over 34,000 fish, mainly Chinook salmon.

The Karuk Tribe’s vice chairman, Kenneth Brink, said, “The river is our church, the salmon is our cross. That’s how it relates to the people. So it’s very sacred to us.”

This project, costing $500 million and financed by taxpayers and PacifiCorps ratepayers, has mainly taken down the smallest of the four dams, known as Copco No. 2. The other three dams are expected to be dismantled next year, following the draining of the reservoirs behind them, leaving some homeowners without the scenic lake they have lived on for years.

Despite a federal lawsuit filed by the Siskiyou County Water Users Association, efforts to halt the demolition have so far proved fruitless.

Next year, the water level in the lakes will decrease between 3 feet and 5 feet (1 meter to 1.5 meters) daily over the first few months. Crews will trail the water line, exploiting the soil’s moisture to plant seeds from over 98 native plant species like wooly sunflower, Idaho fescue, and Blue bunch wheat grass.

From the outset, tribes have been deeply involved in the process, with Resource Environmental Solutions employing tribal members to manually collect seeds from native plants. The Yurok Tribe even hired a restoration botanist.

Each plant species has a unique role. Some, like lupine, grow rapidly and prime the soil for other plants. In contrast, others like oak trees take years to fully mature and provide shade for other plants.

“It’s a wonderful marriage of tribal traditional ecological knowledge and western science,” said Mark Bransom, CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the nonprofit organization established to supervise the project.

The previous largest dam removal project occurred on Washington state’s Elwha River. Here, just months after the dams were taken down, salmon were recolonizing parts of the river they hadn’t accessed in over a century.

Brink, the vice chair of the Karuk Tribe, anticipates a similar outcome on the Klamath River. Brink and other tribal members partake in ceremonial salmon fishing using handheld nets several times a year, which has often been unsuccessful due to a lack of fish.

“When the river gets to flow freely again, the people can also begin to worship freely again,” he said.

Eugene Johnson, a writer for Big Big News in Seattle, contributed.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Dams

What is the largest dam removal project in the United States?

The largest dam removal project in the United States is underway along the California-Oregon border. It involves the removal of four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River.

How will the dam removal project impact the river and surrounding land?

The dam removal project aims to restore the natural flow of the Klamath River and the surrounding land to their pre-dam conditions, which date back more than a century. The removal will open up more than 400 miles of river for threatened species of fish and other wildlife.

What is the goal of planting nearly 17 billion seeds during the restoration process?

As part of the restoration efforts, workers, in collaboration with Native American tribes, will plant nearly 17 billion seeds along the banks of the newly wild river. This massive planting endeavor aims to restore the natural habitat for various plant species and create a conducive environment for fish and wildlife.

Why are the Native American tribes invested in the dam removal project?

The Klamath River and its fish, particularly salmon, hold significant cultural and spiritual importance for many Native American tribes. The dam removal project seeks to revive the river’s natural flow and the salmon population, which is vital for the tribes’ cultural practices and sustenance.

How many dams have been removed in the US as part of river restoration efforts?

As of February, more than 2,000 dams have been removed in the United States as part of a national movement to restore the natural flow of rivers and habitats for fish and wildlife.

How does this dam removal project compare to previous ones?

The removal of four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River represents the largest dam removal project in the United States’ history. It surpasses previous projects, including the Elwha River dam removal in Washington state.

What challenges are faced during the dam removal project?

While demolishing the dams is a significant challenge, the harder part comes in the next decade as workers, in collaboration with Native American tribes, need to restore the river and land to its pre-dam conditions. Invasive plant species pose a challenge, necessitating the planting of billions of seeds to create a suitable habitat for native plants and wildlife.

How is the dam removal project funded?

The dam removal project is funded with a budget of $500 million, financed by taxpayers and PacifiCorps ratepayers.

How long will it take for the river to recover after the dams are removed?

Biologists expect that it will take at least a generation for the Klamath River to recover after the dams are removed. However, the return of salmon to sections of the Elwha River shortly after its dam removal gives hope for a successful restoration.

What is the significance of this restoration project for Native American tribes?

For Native American tribes, the restoration of the Klamath River and its salmon population is not only ecologically crucial but also holds immense cultural significance. It allows them to reconnect with their spiritual practices and traditional way of life centered around the river and its resources.

More about Dams

  • “Momentous:’ US advances largest dam demolition in history” (Source: The Guardian)
  • “Last wild Atlantic salmon can survive Maine dams, feds say” (Source: Bangor Daily News)
  • “California pledges to build channel for threatened fish to bypass Gold Rush-era dam” (Source: The Sacramento Bee)
  • “Advocacy group American Rivers” (Source: American Rivers)
  • “Klamath River Renewal Corporation” (Source: Klamath River Renewal Corporation)
  • “Elwha River dam removal” (Source: Olympic National Park)

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