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Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed: Klamath River moves towards Renewal

As part of WDC’s work to recover the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas and their main source of food – Chinook salmon, we support efforts to restore rivers and marine ecosystems on the West Coast.  Rivers from Canada to California are home to the west’s famous salmon runs, and over 130 species in the region – including orcas – depend on salmon and the important nutrients they provide.  Sadly, dams and development on the rivers that shaped the landscape of this area have decimated salmon, habitats, and the ecosystems that support the remarkable biodiversity of the Northwest.

As the Southern Resident orcas struggle to find food, recovering rivers and habitat for salmon is even more important to ensure we don’t lose both of these icons to extinction.  With only 76 orcas currently left in the population, the Southern Residents are truly at a crisis moment.  Fortunately, the plan to restore one of those river systems, through what will be the largest dam removal project in history, is moving forward.

Making the decision to retire or decommission a dam as part of river restoration is sometimes the easiest step in the process.  After that, difficult work begins: multiple studies to determine the expected environmental impacts, how and when to remove the dams, and securing permits and funding.  Sometimes, permission is needed from Federal Agencies or Congress.  These steps can take years, even decades, to complete.  After the choice was made to remove two dams on the Elwha River in Washington State, it took more than 20 years for them to actually come down. 

For the Klamath River, the process has been similarly long and turbulent.  PacifiCorp initially included dam removal as part of a series of agreements intended to restore the Klamath Basin, long plagued by issues with water quality and toxic algae, disputes over allocation and water use, and declining fish and wildlife populations.  In a groundbreaking process bringing together multiple stakeholders in Northern California and Southern Oregon, a pair of agreements were developed, intended to bring balance back to the communities and the river itself.  Unfortunately, these plans were blocked by Congress multiple times, and ultimately fell apart at the end of 2015. 

Just as it looked like the Klamath would return to fights and legal battles, PacifiCorp reached a new agreement with the states of California and Oregon to forge a path forward and remove the dams without Congressional approval.  Although concerns remain about some of the restoration and water sharing aspects of the original agreements, lost when Congress failed to approve them, efforts are ongoing to develop alternative ways to ensure those key features are supported, with input from the communities and Tribes involved.

After the new Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement was finalized in 2016, the path to dam removal now goes through a regulatory process in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  The license is currently being transferred from PacifiCorp to a new entity, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a non-profit dedicated to overseeing removal of the dams and restoring the Klamath River.  Once the KRRC takes over operation of the dams, the process to decommission them and remove them will be begin.  

Dams throughout the U.S. were built for a number of reasons during the “era of big dams,” and these days the headlines for those same dams coming down reference different issues – most of them related to the unintended consequences of trying to control rivers that were unknown when the dams were built.  Concerns about environmental and safety issues (earthquakes, sediment buildup, impacts to threatened or endangered species, beach erosion) and financial costs (removing dams is often less expensive than upgrades and maintenance to aging infrastructure) are leading to dams retired and rivers renewed. 

The science of dam breaching is also increasingly favoring removing barriers to help restore rivers, floodplains, and estuaries.  Each deconstruction is a new event, unique to the river and the dam, but offers a chance to learn about how rivers recover, and how they bounce back when barriers are removed.  Rivers are resilient and ecosystems are complex, and the response to such major changes can be long-lived. 

Today, the Elwha River is thriving, salmon are swimming upstream for the first time in 100 years, and the Elwha is the second-largest ecological restoration site in the U.S.  In contrast, last year the Klamath River had record low salmon returns, impacting Tribes and communities throughout the Basin, and Klamath River spring Chinook – the very salmon that the orcas target in the early spring when they are foraging along the West Coast – were just proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. 

The Klamath River dams need to come down to help salmon and Southern Resident orcas recover.  As the focus of WDC’s initial Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed campaign in 2014, we sent over 10,000 signatures to PacifiCorp supporting the decision to remove the four Klamath River dams.  We also brought to their attention the ecosystem-wide benefits of recovering the Klamath and its salmon by highlighting the connection to the endangered Southern Residents. 

The KRRC is currently holding a series of public meetings to connect with communities and provide information on the dam removal process.  Soon, the Klamath will be added to the list of dams coming down to benefit river systems and salmon, and will become the largest dam removal project in history.  We look forward to the day the dams come down, and to supporting the next steps in renewing the Klamath River. 

You can help make sure salmon, habitat, and orcas recover in the U.S.  Follow our Don’t Let Orcas Be Dammed and MigrationNation projects, and sign our petition asking NMFS to act now to expand critical habitat for the Southern Resident orcas.  Help us give them a safe place to forage on all the salmon that will come from a renewed Klamath River!

 Looking for other ways to help?  You can support WDC through our Adopt-an-Orca program or by making a donation.  Make sure to sign up for our enewsletters for the latest news, updates, and opportunities to Take Action.