PORTLAND, Ore. ( Associated Press) – U.S. regulators on Thursday approved a plan to demolish four dams on a California river and open hundreds of miles of salmon habitat for a demolition project and the largest restoration in the world.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) vote on the lower Klamath River is the latest major regulatory hurdle and biggest milestone for a $500 million demolition project pushed for years by local tribes and environmentalists.
The project will restore California’s second largest river to free flow for the first time in more than a century.
Native tribes whose way of life depends on the Klamath River and salmon have been the main driving force behind the demolition.
The commissioners called the decision “significant” and “historic” to restore the salmon and revitalize the river central to the culture of the many tribes.
“Some will ask, in this era of great need for zero emissions, why did we remove the levees? First, we need to understand that this doesn’t happen every day… Many of these projects were authorized years ago, when environmental issues were very important,” said FERC Chairman Richard Glick. “Some of these projects significantly affect the environment and fish.”
Glick said that in the past the commission had not considered the impact of energy projects on tribes, but that it was “a very important element” in Thursday’s vote.
Members of the Yurok, Karuk and Hupa tribes gathered around a campfire and watched the vote from a remote sandbar on the Klamath River via satellite link.
The approval of the application to revoke the license to operate the dams is the basis for the most ambitious salmon restoration plan in history. The parties overseeing the project will agree to a transfer of the license and could start dismantling the dams by the middle of next year. This would benefit about 300 miles (480 kilometers) of salmon habitat in the Klamath River and its tributaries, said Amy Soares Kober, a spokeswoman for American Rivers, an organization that oversees dam removal and advocates for the restoration of river dams. does.
“This is an incredibly important milestone,” he said. “This project has important lessons for the river conservation movement, and the most important lesson is that it was led by tribes. Thanks to tribes, the embankments will be removed and the river restored.
Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers, said the vote comes at an important time as human-caused climate change has hit the western United States with a prolonged drought. Those impacts would be mitigated by allowing the natural flow of California’s second-largest river, and the normal function of its floodplains and wetlands, he said.
“The best way to deal with increasing floods and drought is to clean the river system and let it function,” he said.
“Instead of reservoirs, where a lot of water evaporates, it is better to let the river flow and allow its floodplains and wetlands to filter the water and carry it underground, where it does not evaporate.”