Settlement reached to remove Klamath dams

Native Americans once fished salmon along the banks of the Klamath River as far north as Oregon.

"They are a part of our life, they are a part of our lifestyle and our culture. It's been unfortunate that we've been denied the salmon, the very resources that has been part of our history and culture, that's in our legends," said Don Gentry from Klamath Tribes.

"Historically, you probably saw about a million salmon coming in there," said Curtis Knight from California Trout.

But there are no salmon in the Klamath basin today because five separate dams keep them from getting there. The first is 190 miles from the Pacific Ocean. More than 10,000 salmon have returned this year to breed and die. The only reason they keep coming back is because of a hatchery at the foot of the dam where the fish are bred and released.

"Our mitigation goal is to raise six million Chinook salmon, 75,000 Coho and 200,000 steelhead," said Keith Pomeroy from the California Department of Fish and Game.

Removing the dams would give the salmon places to spawn naturally. PacifiCorp owns the dams; its federal license to operate them is up, meaning they must be upgraded to modern standards. Those renovations are expensive. It's estimated to cost $300 million to tear down the dam and would be paid by local utility rate-payers.

Instead, a coalition of tribes, conservationists, land owners, and the local utility have come to an agreement -- the dams should go.

"We've concluded that the settlement that's on the table now that would lead to the removal of the dams is the better option for our customers and the company," said Bob Gravely from PacifiCorp.

Under the agreement, the company would pay $200 million to tear the dams down. The state of California would pay at least another $90 million funded through the sale of bonds. The federal government would chip in another $1 billion to fund the restoration of the river.

A federal environmental review found that removing the dams would boost endangered Coho salmon populations by 81.4 percent by giving them more river to spawn. But not everyone likes this idea, some farmers and landowners worry about life without the dams.

The Klamath basin's fertile fields produced $200,000 tons of potatoes last year. That's why many farmers came out to speak against the dam removal plan at a recent community meeting in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Those farmers worry about their future and with good reason. In 2001, water was shut off to the Klamath basin to provide more water downstream for the salmon.

"The farm didn't get water, so the farm didn't have any income, it had no way to service what I would call its debt, it had no production, we didn't employ people, it was a pretty tough condition around here," said Steve Kandra, a rancher.

Kandra's family has worked this land for three generations. He isn't entirely happy with the settlement, but thinks it is as good as it's going to get. It guarantees farmers will have access to water, even in lean years.

"Talk of taking the dams out has really, really hammered our business," said business owner James Burney.

Burney owns an RV park and restaurant downstream from the first dam. He has already sunk $3 million into an expansion plan for a resort above the river. He worries if guests will still visit if the dams go.

Further upstream there is concern as well. Copco Lake has become a popular recreation area. If the dams are removed, the lake will disappear and most of this waterfront property will literally be left high and dry. Homeowners could find themselves overlooking the river being instead of the lake.

Lee and Tom Rickard moved up here from San Ramon.

"As soon as the mention came out that the dams may come out, home values have dropped 50 percent," said Tom.

The federal environmental review estimates nearly 668 property owners will be significantly impacted by the dam's removal. Supporters sympathize with those property owners, but say the potential for restoring this rich habitat is worth the price.

"The dams have had such a long term negative effect on us as a people, we can relate to the fact of an action having an impact on our life," said Gentry.

To move forward, the interior secretary must endorse the removal projects by March and Congress would need to approve the settlement agreement by the end of next year. If that happens, the removal of the dams could begin by 2020.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

Copyright © 2023 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.