Plan revived for dam removal on Klamath River in Oregon, California

By Jes Burns (OPB)
Nov. 17, 2020 11:21 p.m. Updated: Nov. 18, 2020 12:26 a.m.

After months of uncertainty, plans are once again moving forward to remove four dams on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and Northern California.


The governors of both states announced a new deal Tuesday with dam owner PacifiCorp and the Karuk and Yurok tribes. It revives plans for the largest river restoration in U.S. history, which had been floundering since a problematic federal regulatory decision last summer.

PacifiCorp's Copco 1 dam on the lower Klamath River is one of four hydro dams that would be removed to facilitate fish passage.

PacifiCorp's Copco 1 dam on the lower Klamath River is one of four hydro dams that would be removed to facilitate fish passage.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

Removal of the Klamath River dams – one in Oregon and three in California – have been lauded by tribes, the states and environmental advocates as a necessary step in restoring river health and declining salmon runs.

“We are taking an incredibly important step forward on the path toward restorative justice for the people of the Klamath Basin. And towards restoring the health of the river as well as everyone and everything that depends on it,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said.

Four years ago, parties came to an agreement to transfer the dams from the utility PacifiCorp to the non-profit Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which would take over responsibility and manage the dam removal. This ownership transfer was key for the utility because it would absolve them of future liability for the project.


But in July, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission refused to grant a clean transfer of ownership to the Agency. Instead, FERC issued a partial transfer that kept PacifiCorp as co-licensee, and thus calling into question whether the utility would agree to move forward.

To solve this problem, the states of Oregon and California have now agreed to take over ownership of the dams during the removal process in place of the utility. In January the groups will submit an application to FERC to officially remove PacifiCorp from the license.

Related: OPB's coverage of dam removal

“Adding the states in the role assures that we have the sufficient backing to get the project done,” said Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation would remain as co-licensee with the states while managing and paying for the removal.

Oregon and California also agreed to share financial equal responsibility for any project overruns with PacifiCorp’s.

The new agreement puts the removal of the dams on track for 2023.

“This dam removal is more than just a concrete project coming down. It’s a new day and it’s a new era for California tribes. To me, this is who we are. To have a free-flowing river just as those who have come before us and here now for those generations to come,” Yurok Tribal Chairman Joseph James said.

In addition to ownership transfer approval, FERC will also need to grant a separate permit specific to dam removal. A representative of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation said that the application was filed Tuesday.