A century of obstruction
By Joshua Saxon
Coyote went at length on his tour of inspection to the country of the Klamath River and found the people there in the most destitute condition. The river had had an abundance of salmon, but three Skookums [witches] at the mouth of the stream had constructed a dam so that they might get all the fish, and thus prevented the ascent of the customary food supply ... . He saw, however, where the Skookums kept their key for the gate of the dam, and the next morning, when one of the three women started down to open the trap and let out a fish for herself, he darted out of the lodge and running between her feet succeeded in tripping her, so that she fell and threw the key out of her hand. Seizing this instantly Coyote went to the dam and opened the gate, letting the swarming salmon pass through … .
— Shaver et al., (1905)
This week marks the 100th anniversary of California’s Copco dam. Completion of the dam meant that salmon could no longer access the Upper Klamath Basin and charted the course of a basin-wide fisheries collapse. However, today the blend of Karuk and Klamath tales shared above feels more like a prophecy than a creation story as a new course has been set, one that will soon lead to the removal of the lower four Klamath dams. Last year, dam owner PacifiCorp applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for permission to transfer the dams to a newly created nonprofit entity, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, for removal. This was the culmination of two decades of hard work by grassroots activists, scientists, lawyers, and leaders of all stripes.
While the simultaneous removal of four large dams once seemed far-fetched, this dream moves closer to reality with each passing day. We are increasingly confident that the dams will come down for several reasons. First it should be noted that FERC has never denied a dam owner’s application to surrender a project but that’s because companies such as PacifiCorp only offer such proposals when on solid legal footing. FERC will consider that 1) many Klamath stakeholders support the plan; 2) the scientific record is extensive, peer reviewed, and favors dam removal; 3) removal is clearly in the economic interest of PacifiCorp and their rate payers; and 4) California and PacifiCorp have agreed pay the $450 million cost, meaning no federal funds are needed. Add the recent statement by federal officials saying that the administration has no interest in derailing the plan and you can understand our confidence moving forward.
Still, we can’t count our frye before they hatch. We must continue to support dam removal to the bitter end. Currently FERC is taking public comments on the transfer and decommissioning plan and the California Water Board is processing the necessary Clean Water Act permits. We urge everyone to visit these agency websites to comment in favor of dam removal.
Adding an additional incentive to remove dams, this week the Karuk Tribe filed a formal petition to add Klamath Spring Chinook salmon to the federal endangered species list. Springers were likely the largest run of salmon in the Klamath before the dams and are the most impacted. Springers enter the river early in the year and once traveled hundreds of miles and climbed thousands of feet in elevation to occupy the spring fed head waters of the Williamson, Sprague, and Wood Rivers above Upper Klamath Lake. Today, only two Klamath tributaries, the Salmon and South Fork Trinity, host wild Springers and the entire population numbered just over 200 adults this year. Recently, researchers at UC Davis found the specific genetic difference between fall and spring run Chinook, demonstrating the need to designate Klamath Spring Chinook as a unique species qualifying for ESA listing. Of course the best way to restore these fish and avoid listing is through dam removal.
Klamath salmon have survived volcanic eruptions, fish canneries, the gold rush, poor forest management, extensive irrigation diversions, and 100 years of dams. We now stand at a defining moment in the history of the Klamath region. We have the power to ensure that wild salmon remain a part of our culture, and everyone else’s, if we can muster the resolve to see dam removal through to the end. Coyote has seized the key and he stands ready to “unlock the dam and let the swarming salmon through” ... but he needs the support of everyone in the broader Klamath community to finish the job.
Joshua Saxon is a member of the Karuk Council. A chance to learn more about the dam removal process and ask questions comes Nov. 9 at 6 p.m. at the Adorni Center in Eureka as the Klamath River Renewal Corporation will host an Open House. Visit www.Klamathrenewal.org for more information.