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Native American tribes win the fight to remove the world’s largest dam

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– A federal regulator who oversees hydroelectric dams in the United States has made a landmark decision to remove four older problem dams on the lower Klamath River in Northern California.

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decision would allow the decommissioning and removal of the dams to allow salmon to reach their natural spawning grounds hundreds of miles upstream. It marked a victory for local Native American tribes and environmental groups after decades of coordinated efforts.

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This dam demolition project, at a cost of US$500 million, would be the largest river restoration and dam removal project in the world.

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“Klamath salmon is coming home,” Yurok President Joseph James proclaimed after Thursday’s vote. “The people have won this victory, and with it, we fulfill our sacred duty to the fish that have sustained our people since the beginning of time.”

The Yurok, an indigenous people of the Klamath River and Pacific Coast with some 7,000 members, have fished along the Klamath River for thousands of years along with the Hupa, Karuk, and Klamath tribes.

By the 1870s, the population of all Indian towns in the Klamath had declined by 75 percent due to violence or disease caused by uncontrolled logging and mining by settlers during the California Gold Rush. Their populations dwindled further after the children were forcibly transferred to Indian boarding schools.

The Yurok lost their fishing rights in the 1930s. When the fourth dam was finally built in the 1960s, the salmon in the river were almost completely extinct.

Once the third largest salmon river on the West Coast, the Klamath, combined with its watershed, covers 14,500 square miles (37,500 square km), stretching from Oregon to California.

However, starting in 1918, with the last one built in 1968, man-made dams cut the river in two halves, effectively cutting off salmon from their spawning grounds and decimating their populations. This destroyed traditional Native American fishing grounds, commercial fishing, and wildlife that depended on the fish for a living.

Dams also reduced water quality by causing stagnation and toxic algae blooms and increased water temperatures and the spread of diseases that affect fish and other aquatic life. Studies show that dam removal can reverse these adverse effects and restore salmon populations.

FERC‘s decision came nearly two decades after the Kalamath dams caused a catastrophic environmental imbalance in 2002 that killed an estimated 70,000 salmon before they could spawn, decimating the salmon population virtually overnight.

That manufactured crisis brought together an unlikely group of vocal opponents united in their determination to dismantle the Klamath River, including not only Klamath River Tribes and conservationists, but also commercial fishermen and community groups.

The group finally reached its goal two decades later.

“After the Fish Kill in 2002, we made a commitment to defend our river and our cultures no matter what,” Molli Myers, a member of the Karuk tribe and co-founder of the Klamath Justice Coalition, told the local Lost Coast Outpost newspaper, “That guy extraordinary commitment on the part of ordinary Indians is what led to this victory.

“FERC’s decision to remove PacifiCorp’s dams is the result of years of hard work by our dedicated North Shore tribes, conservationists, California and Oregon leadership, and members of Congress,” said Rep. Huffman, Chairman US House of Representatives Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, and an active supporter of dam removal.

Tom Kiernan, president of American Rivers, was quoted by Lost Coast Outpost as saying the vote comes at a critical time when human-caused climate change is hitting the western United States with devastating droughts.

He explained that allowing California’s second largest river to flow unobstructed and its floodplains and wetlands to function naturally would reduce or even eliminate those negative impacts.

“The best way to manage increasing floods and droughts is to allow the river system to be healthy and do its job,” Kiernan said. ■

(Xinhua)

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