Our metal powerboat is puttering near a bend low in the Klamath River. Morning fog pours off the hills against a flat gray sky, but we can see a fight up around a bird's nest.
“The eagles are perched up here in the tree,” says Mike Belchik, a fisheries biologist for the Yurok tribe, whose lands extend 44 miles from the Pacific Coast inland. “The osprey is dive-bombing them.”
Belchik claps loudly to break up the birds. “They both live around here and they fight all the time,” he laughs.
People along the Klamath once fought bitterly over this river, too. But that’s beginning to change.
Four hydroelectric dams may soon be demolished along the Klamath, near the California-Oregon border. Hundreds of miles of the Klamath would run free to the Pacific Ocean -- opening up the largest river restoration in U.S. history.
What’s made this possible is compromise, forged over years of negotiation, among upriver and downriver interests, in California and Oregon, farmers and tribes and fishery advocates.
Two incidents of deep and painful loss, in 2001 and 2002, sparked this new era. First, the federal Bureau of Reclamation cut off water supplies to almost all irrigators on the Klamath Irrigation Project upriver, to protect water flows to endangered fish, including salmon. Angry farmers who were losing their crops converged at the main irrigation canal’s controls in Klamath Falls, Oregon, turning the water back on. A crowd of 18,000 cheered them on.
The next year, when irrigators once again were able to take water from the river, Belchik says the resulting low flows were deadly downriver.
“We started getting calls about dead fish,” he says, standing along the riverbank. “There’s tens of thousands of fish, rotting fish, big 20-pound salmon, four deep on all of the shorelines.” He wrinkles his nose. “The smell more than the look. It smells like death.”
Now with broad political support, the power company that owns the dams, PacifiCorp, has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to give up its licenses so that four dams, three in California, can be blasted and jackhammered away.
PacifiCorp shareholders will contribute $200 million toward dam removal. California will contribute up to $250 million more in Proposition 1 money, to pay for removal and river recovery, under an agreement signed in April at the mouth of the river.
Gov. Jerry Brown said the goal now is sustainability. “Not for the next election cycle but for eons and thousands of years,” he said. “That’s the significance here. We’re starting to get it right after so many years of getting it wrong.”
Like a lot of Western rivers, the Klamath has been a workhorse serving the people around it. Inland and upriver, its water goes to irrigators on a federal project, farms and grazing in two states. Over the last century four dams harnessed its energy. The oldest hydroelectric dam is Copco 1, which is 132 feet steep between rock walls trailing bright green moss.
Cheap, reliable hydropower made at Copco helped upriver irrigators pump water to crops and cattle. Standing atop it, PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely says the company has made money for shareholders. “Removing these dams is not something that the company had set out to do,” he says now.
But environmental laws put on the books after dams were built changed the equation. Gravely says PacifiCorp would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars updating dams to protect fish and water quality, in compliance with the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, among others. “This is the least cost outcome for our customers that we have,” he says.
It’s not often that a private company seeks to get rid of its own dams. The petition to federal regulators is kind of an end run around Congress and its politics.
Five years ago, a broad coalition of river interests agreed on a plan to allocate water resources, protect economic interests, and yes, remove dams. The deal required congressional action. But nothing happened.
Still, it’s not a done deal. FERC will receive public comment on the decision, and some of it will come from fiercely independent rural Siskiyou County, where 80 percent of voters oppose dam removal, period.
Siskiyou County Supervisor Grace Bennett says she’s suspicious of the science underpinning dam removal, and the financial risks of such a major change.
“We want answers,” she says. “And we want to be not held responsible when this -- and I’m going to say this 'grand experiment,' which we feel we’re in the middle of -- doesn’t turn out the way we want. And they leave us doing lots of damage to our county.”
Even if the dams are removed, two major questions remain for the Klamath Basin: How to share water and how to help fish recover. Dozens of local stakeholders are starting to hash out those questions, including Oregon rancher Becky Hyde. Congressional opposition or inaction could still get in the way of compromise. But Hyde says she hopes local interests triumph.
“I don’t think a healthy Klamath is solely dependent on whether or not the U.S. Congress decides to pay attention,” Hyde says. “We decide. We choose while we wait for them to wake up. We choose how to treat each other while we wait for them to start making wise choices.”
In this basin, those choices are personal, says Oregon alfalfa farmer Gary Derry. After the water shut off in 2001, his son moved away. Now his younger daughter is weighing the same choice.
“I don’t want to see my kids leave. I don’t want to see anybody down the river, their kids leave,” Derry says. He points out his daughter is graduating with a soil science degree. “I want to get back to where we have a river community, top to bottom, that can survive. That’s what I want.”
If regulators approve dam decommissioning, hundreds of miles of river would open up for fish and people. Copco 1 and the other three dams would go silent in four years.