Regulators in the United States on Thursday approved a plan to demolish four dams on a California river, opening up hundreds of miles of salmon habitat in what will be the largest dam removal and river restoration project in the world if it goes ahead.

The unanimous vote by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on the Klamath River lower dams is the latest major regulatory hurdle and biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition proposal championed by Native American tribes and environmentalists for years. The project would allow the lower half of California’s second largest river to flow freely for the first time in more than a century.

Indigenous tribes who depend on the Klamath River and its salmon for their way of life have been a driving force in bringing down the dams in a wild and remote region that straddles the California-Oregon border. Barring unforeseen complications, Oregon, California and the entity created to oversee the project will accept the license transfer and could begin removing the dam as early as this summer, proponents said.

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

The dams produce less than 2 percent of PacifiCorp’s power generation — enough to power about 70,000 homes — when running at full capacity, said utility spokesman Bob Gravely. But they often run at much lower capacity because of low river levels and other issues, and the deal that 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 barriers and other conservation improvements under environmental regulations that were not in place when the aging dams were first built. But with the deal approved Thursday, the utility’s cost is capped at $200 million, with another $250 million from a California voter-approved water bond.

“Goods close coal-fired power stations and build wind farms and in the end it all has to be right. It’s not one-on-one,” Gravely said of the dam’s impending demolition. “You can make up for that power by the way you operate the rest of your facilities or by saving energy efficiency so your customers use less.”

Approval of the order to surrender the dams’ operating license forms the basis of the most ambitious salmon recovery plan in history, and the scope of the project – measured by the number of dams and the amount of riverine habitat that would be reopened to salmon — makes it the largest of its kind in the world, said Amy Souers Kober, spokesperson for American Rivers, which oversees dam removal and advocates for river restoration.

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

The decision is in line with a trend to remove obsolete and obsolete dams in the US as they come up for license renewal and must pay the same government-mandated upgrade costs as the Klamath River dams would have had.

In the U.S., 1,951 dams have been demolished since February, with 57 due by 2021, American Rivers said. Most of those have declined over the past 25 years as facilities age and require new licenses.

Commissioners on Thursday called the decision “memorable” and “historic” and spoke of the importance of action during National Native American Heritage Month because of its importance to salmon recovery and reviving the river that is at the heart of the culture of different tribes. in the region.

“At this time of great need for zero emissions, some people may ask, ‘Why are we removing the dams?’ First, we need to understand that this doesn’t happen every day… Many of these projects were licensed several years ago, when there was not much attention to environmental issues,” said Richard Glick, President of FERC. “Some of these projects have a significant impact on the environment and a significant impact on fish.”

Glick added that the committee has historically failed to consider the effect of energy projects about tribes, but said it was a “very important element” of Thursday’s decision.

Members of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes and other supporters lit a bonfire and watched the vote on a remote sandbar in the Klamath River via a satellite uplink to symbolize their hopes for river renewal.

“I understand that some of those tribes are watching this gathering today on the [river] bar, and I’ll raise a toast to you,” said FERC Commissioner Willie Phillips.

The mood comes at a critical time when man-made climate change The western United States has been hit by a prolonged drought, said Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers. He said if California’s second largest river could flow naturally and the floodplains and wetlands function normally, these impacts would be mitigated.

“The best way to manage increasing floods and droughts is to let the river system be healthy and run its course,” he said.

The watershed of the Klamath Basin covers more than 37,500 square kilometers (14,500 sq mi), and the Klamath itself was once the third-largest salmon-producing river on the West Coast. But the dams, built between 1918 and 1962, essentially cut the river in half and prevent salmon upstream from reaching spawning grounds. Thereafter, salmon The number of runs has been declining for years.

The smallest dam, Copco 2, could collapse as early as this summer. The remaining dams — one in southern Oregon and two in California — will drain very slowly beginning in early 2024 with the goal of returning the river to its natural state by the end of that year.

Plans to remove the dams have not been without controversy.

Homeowners on Copco Lake, a large reservoir, strongly opposed the demolition plan. And taxpayers in the rural counties surrounding the dams are concerned about taxpayers bearing the cost of any overruns or liability issues. Critics also believe that removing dams will not be enough to save the salmon because of the changing ocean conditions the fish encounter before returning to their native river.

“The whole question is, will this contribute to increased salmon production? It has everything to do with what’s going on in the ocean [and] we believe this will prove to be a futile effort,” said Richard Marshall, head of the Siskiyou County Water Users Association. “Nobody has ever tried to solve the problem by taking care of the existing situation without just removing the dams.”

U.S. regulators raised flags over the potential for cost overruns and liability issues in 2020, nearly nullifying the proposal, but Oregon, California and PacifiCorp, which operates the hydroelectric dams and is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, worked together to add another $50m in emergency funds.

PacifiCorp will continue to operate the dams until demolition begins.

The largest dam breakdown in the US to date is the removal of two dams on the Elwha River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in 2012.

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