'Incredibly Important Step' Toward Restorative Justice as Tribes, Dem Governors, and Klamath Dam Owner Announce Salmon Restoration Plan

Standing at the edge of the Klamath River in rural Northern California, a man from the Yurok Tribe uses a dip net to catch fish, the way his ancestors have done for centuries past. (Photo: Justin Lewis/Getty Images)

'Incredibly Important Step' Toward Restorative Justice as Tribes, Dem Governors, and Klamath Dam Owner Announce Salmon Restoration Plan

"At its heart, dam removal is about healing and restoration for the river, for the salmon, and for our people," said the Yurok Tribe chair.

After years of tireless organizing and negotiations, local tribal leaders in the Klamath Basin, the Democratic governors of California and Oregon, and relevant corporate partners on Tuesday announced an agreement that sets the stage for the largest dam demolition project--and most ambitious salmon restoration effort--in U.S. history.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown joined leaders of the Yurok and Karuk Tribes and Berkshire Hathaway-owned PacifiCorp in announcing the Memorandum of Agreement signed by the states, tribes, company, and the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), which will carry out the removal process.

"We deeply appreciate the efforts of Govs. Newsom and Brown, the Yurok Tribe, and the leadership of Berkshire Hathaway to forge a path forward on dam removal," Karuk Tribe chair Russell "Buster" Attebery said in a statement. "We are more confident than ever that future generations of Karuk will enjoy the benefits of a healthy Klamath River just as their ancestors did dating back to the beginning of time."

"Most importantly," Attebery added, "this moment is a testament to years of devotion and hard work by the community of activists representing all tribes on the river who have never tired of demanding justice for their communities."

Yurok Tribe chair Joseph James similarly celebrated the deal and thanked everyone involved, while also vowing that his people "will never rest until the dams are out and the river is healed."

"As Yurok tribal people, it is our sacred duty to bring balance to the Klamath River," James explained. "At its heart, dam removal is about healing and restoration for the river, for the salmon, and for our people. We have never wavered from this obligation and we are pleased to see dam removal come closer to reality through this agreement. Reaching this important milestone would not be possible without the many tribal people who have dedicated their lives to restoring the river."

The new memo details implementation of the 2016 Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement that set terms for removing four dams from the river. The signatories ask the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to remove PacifiCorp from the license for the project and add the states and KRRC as co-licensees. In addition to that move, FERC must also sign off on the demolition project, which is slated to start in 2022 with dam removal planned for the following year.

In a column for the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday, contributing writer Jacques Leslie detailed the long path to the forthcoming "major breakthrough" of removing the "environmentally and culturally disastrous dams" from the river:

At the turn of this century, when leaders of the Yurok and Karuk tribes launched the campaign to take down the dams, the goal was a long shot. They mounted a grassroots movement, hired capable scientists and lawyers, and built relationships with legislators, government agency officials, and even some farmers and ranchers, their putative foes. Despite major setbacks, they didn't give up.

"Hard projects like this never happen just because they're the right thing to do," Brian Johnson, California director of Trout Unlimited, which worked with the tribes, told me. "They happen when a group of people decides that failure isn't an option."

At first, PacifiCorp refused to consider dam removal at all, then in 2010 agreed to the idea but balked at accepting liability for any unbudgeted costs that might arise from demolition. When FERC insisted in July that the plan couldn't proceed unless PacifiCorp accepted a share of potential liability, the deal nearly broke down. Newsom and Brown came to the rescue, authorizing their two states to take on what is projected to be a minimal risk of unbudgeted costs.

"The Klamath River is a centerpiece of tribal community, culture, and sustenance and a national ecological treasure," Newsom said Tuesday. "With this agreement, we are closer than ever to restoring access to 400 miles of salmon habitat which will be a boon to the local economy. I am grateful for the partnership between California and Oregon, the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, and Berkshire Hathaway that proves when we work together, we can build a better, more inclusive future for all."

Brown noted that "this is an incredibly important step forward on the path towards restorative justice for the people of the Klamath Basin, and towards restoring health to the river as well as everyone and everything that depends on it."

"From time immemorial, the stewardship of the Indigenous peoples of the Klamath basin have nurtured the lands, waters, fish and wildlife of this region," she acknowledged. "In Oregon, the Klamath tribes remember a time when their livelihoods were supported by clean, healthy, and vibrant waters. It is that vision, that promise, that we are working towards restoring for the generations to come."

Financier Warren Buffett--whose holding company Berkshire Hathaway bought PacifiCorp from Scottish Power several years ago--thanked the governors for "bringing everyone together" for the complex deal and recognized "the importance of Klamath dam removal and river restoration for tribal people in the Klamath Basin."

KRRC CEO Mark Bransom promised that "once all the necessary approvals are obtained it will be full speed ahead in removing the Klamath dams and allowing salmon to access habitat that has been cut off for a century."

Welcoming the development, International Rivers executive director Darryl Knudsen and Klamath project liaison Bruce Shoemaker said in a joint statement that "the removal of these four destructive and uneconomic Klamath dams will be the largest, and possibly the most important, single initiative for river restoration anywhere and at any time."

"Its success has important implications for international efforts to protect and restore rivers worldwide," they added. "The historic agreement to remove these dams is truly a victory for not only the grassroots movements and Indigenous communities behind the Klamath dams removal, but a precedent and beacon of hope to grassroots struggles the world over to remove destructive large dams on vital rivers."

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