The long and winding road of dam removal

Posted: Sep 27, 2011

Written by

SARAH GILMAN, The High Country News

If you're familiar with the Klamath River Basin, which straddles the Oregon-California border, you've likely heard the story. Leafing back through the High Country News archives, we've certainly told it enough times. It goes something like this:

The largely agricultural basin received just one third of its average annual precipitation in 2001. So the federal government shut off irrigators' water to protect coho salmon, which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The farmers -- who apparently lost between $27 and $47 million as a result -- revolted, held sit-ins, and opened the headgates repeatedly themselves. Eventually, the Bush Administration got the farmers their water back ... and tens of thousands of salmon died.

It was, in a word, a meltdown. But the disaster also helped catalyze "peace": a landmark collaboration between dozens of stakeholders, from three tribes to irrigators to environmentalists to commercial fishermen, to put a stop to (or at least muzzle) what has arguably been one of the West's ugliest water wars. And last week saw a major development in that effort: The Department of Interior released a slew of studies evaluating the environmental impacts of two agreements that arose from those negotiations: one to remove the utility Pacificorps' four lower hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River after 2020, and the other, a comprehensive restoration program wherein fish get more water and farmers accept less along with more certainty that the water they do get won't be shut off.

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