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Bottlenose dolphins © Christopher Swann

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Was 2015 the last chance for restoring the Klamath?

Sadly, another year has ended with no Congressional action on the Klamath agreements, and this time it spells serious trouble for the future of this historic compromise.  A key component of the Klamath agreements is the removal of four dams on the Klamath River, a much-needed step to help struggling salmon populations in California, especially with the ongoing drought and looming El Niño. 

River and habitat restoration on the west coast, which includes dam removal in some areas, is integral to helping salmon populations, the primary prey source for the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas.  This small community of orcas, now numbering 84 with a remarkable eight new calves in the last year, has struggled to recover since being decimated by the captivity industry in the 1960s and 70s and subsequently listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005.  These orcas are fish specialists, and up to 80% of their diet consists of Chinook salmon – the largest, fattiest, and most energy-rich of the Pacific salmon. 

The survival of the Southern Residents is closely linked to coastwide Chinook abundance, now a fraction of its historic amount due to declining numbers, largely from habitat loss and dam impacts.  Removing deadbeat dams that have outlived their intended purpose and end up doing more harm than good is increasingly seen as an economically and ecologically beneficial action for communities in the Pacific Northwest.  River restoration means long-term recovery of salmon populations and gives wild populations their best chance to combat the increasing threat of climate change.  Helping salmon populations recover is also vital to helping the Southern Residents, who are threatened by prey depletion, toxic contamination, vessel effects and ocean noise, among other things.  These threats can also unfortunately act synergistically, and food-stressed orcas become more susceptible to other impacts.

The Klamath Agreements were supposed to solve the water problems of the Klamath Basin, which included a massive salmon die-off in 2002.  After decades of fighting and legal battles between “arch-enemy” water users including fishermen, tribes, and farmers in the Klamath Basin, the opposing parties sat down together and hammered out the Klamath compromises, water pacts that aimed to solve the crisis and put an end to the constant fighting.  The Agreements would restore the Klamath River for salmon, while giving farmers and ranchers greater certainly about water availability.  An integral part is the removal of four dams on the Klamath, which have blocked salmon runs for nearly 100 years.  Removing the four Klamath River dams is expected to re-open more than 300 miles of habitat for salmon, and restore up to 80% of the Chinook population.  PacifiCorp, the owner and operator of the four dams, had signed on in favor of dam removal as an alternative to costly repairs and updates that would be required to relicense the dams for operation.

The most remarkable thing about the Klamath Agreements is that they are entirely stakeholder-created – those that depend on the river took the initiative to create a plan for water in the region.  Sadly, gridlock and staunch Republican resistance to anything including “dam removal” has all but killed the Agreements in Congress.  Originally signed in 2010, bills to authorize the Agreements have been introduced and allowed to die out three times between 2011 and 2014. Although another bill was introduced in the Senate early in 2015, much of the year was spent waiting for a companion bill to be introduced in the House – a necessary step before any movement could occur.  Unfortunately, a last-minute draft bill circulated early in December by Representative Greg Walden of Oregon completely eliminated dam removal from the plan, totally undercutting one of the cornerstones of the Klamath Agreements, and essentially putting the final nail in the coffin of the compromises.

With yet another year of inaction by Congress and frustration from the signatories of the water pacts, one tribe has already pulled out of the agreements, and more stakeholders are preparing their withdrawal after the end of the year – after 5 years of being stuck, the Klamath Agreements will unravel and likely be allowed to expire completely.  PacifiCorp has indicated that they will move ahead with the relicensing process for the dams, which will require a public scoping process and massive updates to the dams to bring them in compliance with environmental and safety laws.  For the Klamath Basin, without cooperation between stakeholders and some actual effort from Congress, the future of the river and everything that depends on it, people and ecosystems alike, is in jeopardy.

While we at WDC are incredibly disappointed with the stubbornness of Congress and its failure to act on these historic agreements, we are not giving up hope on restoring the Klamath for its salmon and the Southern Resident orcas.  Relicensing the dams requires a regulatory process and input from concerned parties, and gives us another chance to point out the connection between the Klamath and the endangered Southern Residents.  These dams may yet come down, even without the Klamath Agreements in place – a Plan B, and another chance, to save salmon in the Pacific Northwest.