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At This River, Officials Try to Turn Back the Clock 100 Years

Klamath River restoration project is a massive, $500M endeavor, involving removal of 4 dams
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 1, 2023 2:17 PM CDT
At This River, Officials Try to Turn Back the Clock 100 Years
The Iron Gate Dam powerhouse and spillway are seen on the lower Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif., on March 2, 2020. This dam, along with three others on the Klamath River, are scheduled to be removed by the end of 2024.   (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus, File)

The largest dam removal project in US history is underway along the California-Oregon border—a process that won't conclude until the end of next year with the help of heavy machinery and explosives. But in some ways, removing the four dams is the easy part, per the AP. The hard part will come over the next decade as workers, partnering with Native American tribes, plant and monitor nearly 17 billion seeds as they try to restore the Klamath River and the surrounding land to what it looked like before the dams started to go up more than a century ago. The demolition is part of a national movement to return the natural flow of the nation's rivers and restore habitat for fish and the ecosystems that sustain other wildlife.

When demolition is completed by the end of next year, more than 400 miles of river will have opened for threatened species of fish and other wildlife. By comparison, the 65 dams removed in the US last year combined to reconnect 430 miles of river. Along the Klamath, the dam removals won't be a major hit to the power supply; they produced less than 2% of power company PacifiCorp's energy generation when they were running at full capacity—enough to power about 70,000 homes. Though the hydroelectric power produced by dams is considered a clean, renewable source of energy, many larger dams in the US West have become a target for environmental groups and tribes because of the harm they cause to fish and river ecosystems.

The project will empty three reservoirs over about 3.5 square miles near the California-Oregon border, exposing soil to sunlight in some places for the first time in more than a century. For the past five years, Native American tribes have gathered seeds by hand and sent them to nurseries with plans to sow the seeds along the banks of the newly wild river. Helicopters will bring in hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs to plant along the banks, including wads of tree roots to create habitat for fish. This growth usually takes decades to happen naturally. But officials are pressing nature's fast-forward button because they hope to repel an invasion of foreign plants, such as starthistle, which dominate the landscape at the expense of native plants.

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The project will cost $500 million, paid for by taxpayers and PacifiCorps ratepayers. Crews have mostly removed the smallest of the four dams. The other three dams are expected to come down next year. The dams halted the natural flow of the river and disrupted the lifecycle of salmon, a fish that spends most of its life in the Pacific Ocean but returns to the chilly mountain streams to lay eggs. The fish are culturally and spiritually significant to a number of Native American tribes, who historically survived by fishing the massive runs of salmon that would come back to the rivers each year. Those runs have lately dwindled. "When the river gets to flow freely again, the people can also begin to worship freely again," said Kenneth Brink, vice chairman of the Karuk Tribe. (More dams stories.)

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