Viewpoints

The Klamath River Basin is headed toward disaster. Here’s how we can save it

The Klamath River Basin, which traverses the California-Oregon border, has been home to the Yurok Tribe since time immemorial. Our people have depended on this river’s bounty for both nutritional and spiritual sustenance for more generations than we can count.

But the salmon and steelhead that were once abundant in this great watershed are now at risk of extinction, a preventable disaster that can be averted by moving forward with the planned removal of four aging hydroelectric dams.

While the Klamath River was once the third-largest salmon producer on the west coast, its fish runs have been declining for decades. Although the causes for this decline are complex, the dams block fish passage, degrade water quality and beget spiraling disease epidemics that kill fish. The unhealthy river has impacted tribal members’ ability to harvest fish for sustenance, the ability of commercial fishermen to make a living and the ability of rural communities to address dire economic circumstances.

Located in an unpopulated part of Northern California and Southern Oregon, the Klamath watershed is a better candidate for restoration than any other sizable river system in the Golden State. The waterway primarily runs through Tribal and national forest lands, where there is little development. Hundreds of miles of fish rearing habitat exist above the dams.

Opinion

While there is more work to do, the stretch below the aging structures contains an ever-improving environment for fish, which is a testament to an ongoing effort led by the Yurok Tribe, both states and the federal government to improve the conditions in the river. We are confident in the very real prospects of rewilding the Klamath River, but the fishery cannot and will not rebound without dam removal.

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Klamath River Renewal Corporation decommissioning of four hydroelectric dams
Klamath River Renewal Corporation

As the original stewards of the Klamath, we have an obligation to restore the river, which is marred by habitat alterations, poor water quality from excess agricultural effluent and habitat blockages. For example, by stopping normal sediment flow, the dams create an ideal environment for lethal parasites that kill a large fraction of the Klamath’s juvenile salmon. Every summer, toxic blue-green algae overruns the river, making it unsafe for human and animal contact. Prolific algal blooms and the pathogens that attack native fish will persist until the river is returned to a more natural state.

In July of this year, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation submitted additional information to FERC illustrating its capacity to remove these dams. We are pleased with the progress that KRRC has made and are confident the corporation is more than capable of implementing the KHSA. Now it is the FERC’s turn to approve the transfer and allow dam removal without further delay.

The fish are dying, and without them our families are suffering. Dam removal is a crucial first step toward fixing the state’s best hope for wild salmon. As the chairman of California’s largest tribe, I am optimistic that dam removal will move forward and uncountable future generations of Yurok people will live in a world with a pristine Klamath River.

Joseph L. James is chairman of the Yurok Tribe.
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