Native American tribes, environmentalists and salmon earned a big win this week when U.S. regulators approved plans for the world’s largest dam removal and river restoration project to date.

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted unanimously to demolish four dams on the lower Klamath River, which flows across the Oregon and California border. The $500 million project will restore California’s second biggest river to its natural, free flowing self.

Related: Over 500 new dams planned for protected areas worldwide

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” said Yurok Chairman Joseph James after the vote, as reported by AP. “The people have earned this victory and with it, we carry on our sacred duty to the fish that have sustained our people since the beginning of time.”

Many environmental laws passed since the dams were constructed between 1918 and 1962. PacifiCorp, who uses the dams for power generation, would need to invest millions to build fish screens, fish ladders and other conservation improvements to comply with current environmental regulations. Ultimately, it wasn’t worth it. Even when the dams run at full capacity, they produce less than 2% of the company’s total power generation.

However, not everybody is happy about the decision. Citizens in rural communities around the dams worry about being tapped for cost overruns or liability. Some don’t believe removing dams will be enough to save salmon, who are also affected by changing ocean conditions.

Pre-dams, the Klamath used to be the west coast’s third largest salmon producing river. But the dams cut the river in half and prevented the fish from reaching the waters of their upstream spawning grounds. Salmon numbers have dwindled.

Copco 2, the smallest dam, might come down by next summer. The other three will be slowly drained, starting in early 2024. The river should reach its natural state by year’s end. The dam decision aligns with a wider trend of removals across the U.S. Almost 2,000 U.S. dams have been demolished to date, including 57 in 2021. As their licenses came up for renewal, the dams all faced prohibitive costs to upgrade to current standards. Instead, they came down.

Via AP News

Lead image via AP