Largest river restoration project in U.S. history to begin in California and Oregon

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California Construction News staff writer

Final approval was announced last week for a transformative dam removal project that will revitalize nearly 400 miles of the Klamath River and tributaries – the largest river restoration project in American history.

Officials gathered at the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery marks the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) final approval for removing four hydroelectric dams in California and Oregon, restoring access to hundreds of miles of habitat unreachable for salmon and steelhead for more than a century and revitalizing tribal communities and cultures for generations to come.

“Today we celebrate a historic victory for the health of the Klamath River and the well-being of all the communities, livelihoods and ecosystems that depend on this vital waterway,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “We also celebrate the resilience and tenacity of the many partners who have advanced a powerful shared vision for this effort over 15 years to bring us to this moment.”

Four tribal water projects in Oregon and California’s Klamath River Basin will receive $5.8 million through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation to restore aquatic ecosystems, improve the resilience of habitats, and mitigate the effects of the ongoing drought crisis. The funding is made available through Reclamation’s Native American Affairs Technical Assistance to Tribes Program.

“Over the past 20 years, the Basin has been met with unprecedented challenges due to ongoing drought conditions and limited water supply,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. “The forthcoming dam removals – combined with millions of dollars in water and habitat resilience investments from the Biden-Harris administration – will help restore this once abundant ecosystem for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”

The Klamath Basin’s diverse communities include Native Americans, farmers, ranchers, loggers, miners and fishermen. The Klamath Basin watershed covers 9.4 million acres, an area larger than nine U.S. states.

The river was once the third-largest salmon producing river on the West Coast and teemed with salmon and trout in what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply before the construction of concrete dams beginning in 1918 to generate electricity blocked migratory salmon and steelhead from accessing more than 350 miles of critical river habitat.

“The Klamath Tribes are ecstatic about these dams being removed,” said Clayton Dumont, the Chairman of the Klamath Tribes. “We are grateful to Governors Brown and Newsom, to our downriver Tribal brothers and sisters, and to all who worked tirelessly to make this huge contribution to restoring our Basin ecosystem.”

When the original 50-year license to operate the four Klamath River hydroelectric dams expired in 2006, a coalition of tribal governments, state and federal agencies, community groups, fishery and conservation groups and local governments developed a series of agreements intended to resolve challenges in the Klamath Basin.

Following FERC’s approval on Nov. 17, California, Oregon and KRRC acted towards the end of the month to formally become co-licensees to carry out removal of the dams and fully implement the Amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement signed in 2016.

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