Close to Home: Envisioning the Klamath without dams

April 17, 2022

The beleaguered Klamath River Basin is finally getting good news. The recommendation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to advance Klamath dam removal sets a path for a more sustainably managed river — something we haven’t seen for more than a century. It won’t solve every problem in the Klamath Basin, but it bodes well for the future.

Klamath dam removal will be the largest salmon restoration project in history — a remarkable victory for the tribes and downstream communities that rely on this river. Removing these obsolete dams will help restore iconic salmon without reducing water supply. But even with these improvements, there’s a looming threat to the health of the Klamath River and all who depend on it: climate change and the chronic drought conditions it is bringing to the West.

In wet years, there’s enough water to go around the Klamath. Fields of potatoes, alfalfa and other crops can be irrigated while fish and wildlife thrive. These harmonious conditions are an increasingly distant memory. We are in the worst drought in 1,200 years and conditions are expected to worsen. When the irrigation infrastructure of the Klamath was built and water rights granted, it was assumed the hydrology of the 20th century would last forever — a misguided assumption.

Recently, the subcommittee I chair on water, oceans and wildlife held a hearing on the needs of the Klamath Basin. Leaders from the Hoopa, Karuk and Yurok tribes explained that the river is on the brink of ecological collapse. We also heard from the agricultural community’s case for not having their water use curtailed and criticism of what they call “single species management.”

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Klamath Basin is in deep trouble. After multiple years of drought, it has 69% of normal snowpack and 75% of normal precipitation.

For salmon and the communities that depend on them, this is a disaster. After a century and a half of damage brought by dams, diversions, gold dredging, clear cutting and multiple droughts, Klamath salmon are teetering on the edge of extinction. Dam removal is a lifeline for these species, but the future looks grim for the river and its fisheries. The latest science tells us to expect hotter, drier summers and less snowpack. With less water to go around, it will be impossible to meet all the demands. How we manage this challenge has implications for far more than just a “single species” — it’s about everyone and everything that depends on water in the Klamath River.

The United States has failed to meet its obligations to tribes or make good on promises to veterans who were granted homesteads to farm the headwaters. It would be unethical and unfair to cut off their water and let those families go broke, just as it would be shortsighted to issue temporary drought assistance and tell families to pray for rain we know will not come.

While fallowed fields are a sign of the problem, it’s not just the agricultural community that is suffering. The economy of the lower Klamath River is in tatters because tribal water rights have been too long ignored and fisheries that once sustained thousands of jobs have been devastated. The Klamath Basin’s problems are much bigger than some talking point about single species management, and scapegoating the Endangered Species Act isn’t a solution.

The hard reality of Klamath River hydrology means irrigated agriculture will have to use less water. Congress and the administration can help by improving irrigation efficiency and developing markets for crops that require less water. Policymakers are helping other industries adapt to new climate realities; we owe the same help to our farmers.

If you’re looking to criticize how the Endangered Species Act has been implemented, start with the debacle of managing salmon to avoid extinction rather than achieving recovery. With climate change, we may not restore the full abundance of the Klamath’s legendary salmon runs, but salmon are amazingly resilient if you give them a chance. With better water management and habitat improvement, we can aspire to salmon populations that meet long-ignored treaty obligations, enable delisting and are healthy enough to sustain viable fisheries.

Removing the Klamath dams is a start to a new era with challenges and opportunities that call on stakeholders in the upper and lower basins to do the hard work of engaging with mutual respect, adapting to new realities and making the basin sustainable for the next 100 years.

Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, represents the 2nd Congressional District.

By:  Congressman Jared Huffman
Source: Press Democrat