As work begins on the largest dam removal project in the United States, the tribes look to a future of growth

As work begins on the largest dam removal project in the United States, the tribes look to a future of growth

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – The largest dam removal project In the history of the United States is underway along the California-Oregon border – a process that will not end until the end of next year with the help of heavy machinery and explosives.

But in some ways, removing dams is the easy part. The hard part will come over the next decade as workers, in partnership with Native American tribes, plant and monitor nearly 17 billion seeds as they try to restore the Klamath River and surrounding lands to what they were before the dams began to rise further. from a century ago.

The demolition is part of a national movement to restore the natural flow of the country’s rivers and restore habitats for fish and ecosystems that sustain other wildlife. More than 2,000 dams had been removed in the United States as of February, the bulk of which had fallen in the past 25 years, according to the American advocacy group Rivers.

The removal of four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River is the movement’s greatest victory and greatest challenge. When demolition is completed by the end of next year, more than 400 miles (644 kilometers) of the river will be opened to threatened species of fish and other wildlife. By comparison, the 65 dams removed in the United States last year combined to reconnect 430 miles (692 kilometers) of river.

The project will empty three reservoirs over an area of ​​about 3.5 square miles (9 square kilometers) near the California and Oregon borders, exposing the soil to sunlight in some places for the first time in more than a century.

For the past five years, Native American tribes have collected the seeds by hand and sent them to nurseries with plans to plant the seeds along the banks of a freshly wild river. Helicopters will bring in hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs to plant along the banks, including clumps of tree roots to create a habitat for fish.

This growth usually takes decades to occur naturally. But officials are pressing the fast-forward button to nature because they hope to fend off invading foreign plants, such as starthistlewhich dominate the landscape at the expense of local plants.

“Why don’t we just let nature take its course? Well, nature didn’t take its course when the dams were put in. We can’t pretend this massive change of landscape didn’t happen and we can’t ignore the fact that invasive species are such a big problem in the West and in Africa,” said Dave Meurer, director of dams. The community at Resource Environmental Solutions, the company leading the restoration project.”Our goal is to give nature a head start.”

An energy company, known today as PacifiCorp, built the dams starting in 1918 to generate electricity. The dams stopped the river’s natural flow and disrupted the life cycle of salmon, fish that spend most of their lives in the Pacific Ocean but return to cool mountain streams to spawn. The fish is culturally and spiritually significant to a number of Native American tribes, who historically survived by catching huge amounts of salmon that would return to the rivers each year.

A combination of low water levels and warm temperatures in 2002 led to a bacterial outbreak that killed more than 34,000 fish, mostly Chinook salmon. The loss led to decades of advocacy from Native American tribes and environmental groups, culminating last year when federal regulators approved a plan to remove the dams.

The river is our church, the salmon is our cross. This is how it comes to people. “It’s very sacred to us,” said Kenneth Brink, deputy chief of the Karuk Tribe. “A river is not just a place where we go swimming. It is life. It creates everything for our people.”

The project would cost $500 million, paid for by the taxpayers and PacifiCorps taxpayers. Crews have mostly removed the smallest of the four dams, known as Copco No. 2. The other three dams are expected to come down next year after the reservoirs behind them are drained. This will leave some homeowners in the area without the picturesque lake they’ve lived on for years.

The Siskiyou County Water Users Association, which formed about a decade ago to stop a dam removal project, has filed a federal lawsuit. But so far they have not been able to stop the demolition.

“I think it’s a huge mistake,” said the association’s president, Richard Marshall. Unfortunately, it is a mistake that you cannot undo.

The lakes’ water levels will drop between 3 feet and 5 feet (1 meter to 1.5 meters) per day for the first few months of next year. Crews will follow that waterline, taking advantage of the moisture in the soil to grow seeds of more than 98 species of native plants including woolly sunflower, Idaho grass, and blue wheatgrass.

Tribes have been invested in this process from the start. Resource Environmental Solutions hired tribal members to manually collect seeds from local plants. The Yurok tribe even hired a restoration botanist.

Each type has a role to play. Some, like lupins, grow quickly and prepare the soil for other plants. Others, like oak trees, take years to fully mature and provide shade for other plants.

“It’s a wonderful marriage of traditional tribal environmental knowledge and Western science,” said Mark Bransome, CEO of the Klamath River Regeneration Company, the nonprofit entity created to oversee the project.

The previous largest dam removal project was on Washington state’s Elua River, which flows from Olympic National Park into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In 1992 Congress approved the demolition of the two dams on the river that had been built in the early 20th century. After two decades of planning, workers finished removing them in 2014, opening up about 70 miles (113 kilometers) of habitat for salmon and steelhead.

It will take at least a generation, biologists say, for the river to recover, but within months of the dams being removed, salmon were already recolonizing parts of the river that hadn’t been reached in over a century. The Lower Kallam Elwa tribe, closely involved in the restoration work, opened a limited subsistence fishery this fall for coho salmon, the first since the dams fell.

Brink, the deputy chief of the Carrock tribe, hopes to have similar success on the Klamath River. Several times a year, Brink and other tribal members participate in ceremonial salmon fishing using portable nets. Many years ago, he said, there was no fish to catch.

He said, “When the river flows freely again, people can also begin to worship freely again.”


Associated Press writer Eugene Johnson in Seattle contributed.

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