HERA IS ONE dilemma for environmentalists: more salmon or a continuous flow of hydroelectric power? This issue has been at the heart of a battle on the scenic Klamath River, which flows from Oregon through a long stretch of northern California. On the upper interior of the river, four hydroelectric dams produce enough electricity for 70,000 households and are capable of producing twice as much. But, critics say, dams prevent salmon and other migrating fish from reaching spawning grounds further upstream. They argue that the dams must therefore be demolished.
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Unless surprised, this argument prevailed. On June 17, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted crucial approval for what will be the largest dam removal project in American history. Jared Huffman, a pro-removal Democratic congressman whose district includes the lower uninhibited stretch of the Klamath River, said the FERCThe move means that the opposition’s chances of derailing the project are now “extremely remote”. Portland, Oregon-based energy company PacifiCorp plans to replace hydropower by increasing power generation elsewhere. Two-thirds of PacifiCorp’s production is powered by fossil fuels, mainly coal.
Indigenous groups that fish for salmon led the charge in removing the dams. Barry McCovey, a fishery scientist from the Yurok tribe, who lives along the lowest stretch of the Klamath near the Pacific Ocean, says the number of salmon entering the river to spawn has dropped since arrival of foreigners. en masse in the 1850s. Salmon fishing, even sport fishing, is now severely restricted.
The decline of salmon has accelerated in recent times. The drop in precipitation is partly to blame. This lowered and warmed the river, a situation made worse by the man-made lakes absorbing sunlight behind the dams. As a result, fish parasites and toxic algal blooms that consume oxygen have increased. Sam Gensaw, a Yurok who guides trips in traditional canoes cut from redwood trunks, explains that living downstream from dams “is like being slowly spoon-fed with poison.” A city official from Arcata, a coastal town an hour south of the mouth of the river in the Yurok town of Klamath, sums up the local sentiment: remove the dams to “empty the ick out”.
Demolitions are scheduled for 2023. To what extent this will increase salmon numbers, however, is debated. Some argue that the lava flows now submerged by the dams have stopped many salmon migrating further upstream since time immemorial. This is why salmon does not appear in ancestral stories upstream from the Shasta Nation, an indigenous group in the region, says its leader, Roy Hall. He further attributes the decline in salmon to global warming and calls the removal of dams “environmental folly.” After the lakes dry up, he fears Shasta’s now underwater burial grounds will be desecrated by pottery hunters.
Of the four dams, only the highest upstream has a fish ladder for migrating species. PacifiCorp describes it as “run down”. Supporters of saving the dams have pushed for the other three to be fitted with ladders or even “fish cannons” – tubes that shoot salmon over dams elsewhere. But proposals to install such aids have failed to gain traction. Cost is not the only reason. As Mr. McCovey, Yurok’s fisheries manager, says, the goal is to restore nature, not to build “more man-made bullshit.”
Feelings like this are echoed by other Yurok, a tribe that considers itself the largest in California. Amy Cordalis, lawyer for the Yurok, describes the dams as “a beacon of colonization”. Frankie Myers, a senior elected Yurok official, calls the dams “monuments of genocide.” Mr Myers says that as a young man he would sneak into foreign logging camps to carry out “key” operations, for example, eliminating diesel. The demolition of the dams, he says, is “a slap in the face” for what he sees as the pursuit of material gain at the expense of indigenous lifestyles.
Upstream, attitudes differ. Referendums in conservative counties for inland logging, ranching and agriculture reveal overwhelming support for the river status quo. These areas are warmer and drier than coastal redwood forests, so wildfires are common. Firefighting planes can scavenge water from tanks without landing, notes William Simpson, whose ranch near one of them, Lake Copco, was rescued from a recent fire. He describes the dam removal as “imprudent”.
The political battle has become a microcosm of polarization in America. So says Craig Tucker of Suits and Signs, a small political consultancy firm hired by the Yuroks to influence public opinion and negotiate with government, business and other stakeholders. Mr. Tucker, based in McKinleyville on the coast, describes some inland counties as “a hotbed” of “anti-government patriot groups.” In liberal seaside towns like Arcata, where hipsters, some in pajamas, visit a marijuana dispensary in the downtown shopping district, support for the dam removal is strong. Betsy Musick, owner of a gallery restaurant in Trinidad, a quaint coastal village near Klamath, describes the conservative-liberal dichotomy as ‘wood and pot’.
PacifiCorp, for its part, brilliantly played the controversy, at least with regard to its bean counters. Although dams are structurally sound, the FERC made it clear that license renewals would be subject to “maximum conditions,” said Scott Bolton, Dams Manager at PacifiCorp. Build fish ladders and jump through others FERC the hoops would cost maybe as much as $ 650 million, he estimates. It will therefore be cheaper to demolish the dams. PacifiCorp was successful in raising $ 250 million of the project’s $ 450 million from taxpayers. The rest is increased with higher electricity bills.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Dammed if you do”