In a major victory for environmentalists, a hydro-electric firm has agreed to dismantle as many as four dams built across Klamath river in California. The dams are believed to have blocked fish migrations on one of the West Coast's most important salmon rivers for decades.
Predictably the dams have been the subject of bitter feuding among farmers, fishermen and tribal interests.
The Klamath has "been dammed and polluted nearly to death," observed caustically Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns.
The dams range in height from 33 feet to 173 feet and are spread across 65 miles of the Klamath. They have kept chinook and coho salmon out of the upper river and its tributaries and also have hurt water quality, it is claimed.
In the summer, stagnant pools of warm water behind the dams become a breeding ground for toxic algae, Bettina Boxall said, reporting for Los Angeles Times.
The Klamath Basin made national headlines early this decade when federal water managers cut irrigation deliveries to preserve fish flows, sparking protests from irate farmers. The following year, when more water was released to agriculture, tens of thousands of salmon died, floating in the river's shallow waters and washing up on its banks.
Along with the Columbia and the Sacramento rivers, the Klamath has traditionally been one of the country's most productive salmon rivers. But the West Coast salmon stocks have been in such poor shape that for the last three years, California has canceled its commercial salmon fishing season.
The new agreement would open historic salmon spawning and rearing grounds on the upper reaches of the river, which winds from southern Oregon through the Cascades and Coast Ranges to California's Pacific Coast.
"We can't restore the river solely by removing the dams, but we can't restore the Klamath without removing the dams," said Steve Rothert of the environmental group American Rivers, one of 29 parties negotiating the dam settlement.
After the inking of the deal, Dean Brockbank, PacifiCorp's lead negotiator of PacifiCorp, the Oregon firm, "We have achieved an agreement that is in the best interest of our customers -- the lowest cost and risk compared to the alternative."
Under the draft settlement, which the parties hope to sign by the end of the year, PacifiCorp would continue to operate the dams until 2020. Then they would transfer the hydropower facilities to another entity, likely the federal government, for dismantling.
"This agreement marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Klamath River and for the communities whose health and way of life depend on it," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.