Indigenous Advocacy Spurs Largest US Dam Removal


News Team

The Klamath River is the second largest river in California and is a popular fishing spot for the Yurok Tribe. Every fall, Barry McCovey, a member of the Yurok Tribe and director of tribal fisheries, takes his four children salmon fishing on the river. They usually catch enough fish to last them the whole year, but this year, the salmon run was the second lowest on record, and the fall fishing season was cancelled. The decline in the salmon population is due to a variety of factors, but the biggest culprit is believed to be a series of dams built along the river from 1918 to 1962, cutting off fish migration routes.

After years of Indigenous advocacy, four of the dams are being demolished as part of the largest dam removal project in United States history. In November, crews finished removing the first of the four dams as part of a push to restore 644 kilometers (400 miles) of fish habitat. This is expected to have long-lasting benefits for the ecosystem and the fishery.

The fight for dam removal began after a devastating fish kill in 2002. The dams interrupted the river’s flow, causing water to stagnate, warm, and lose oxygen, degrading water quality and increasing the spread of parasites that kill fish. The die-off prompted tribes like the Yurok to spring into action to protect the river ecosystem and their way of life.

In 2006, the license for the hydroelectric dams expired, creating an opportunity for dam removal. The utility company responsible for the dams faced a choice: upgrade the dams at an economic loss or enter into a settlement agreement that would allow them to operate the dams until they could be demolished. The utility company chose the settlement, and the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) was created to oversee the dam removals.

The final approval for the dam removal came in 2022, marking a “watershed moment” for the project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted unanimously to tear down the dams, citing the benefit to the environment as well as to Indigenous tribes.

Amy Cordalis, a Yurok Tribe member, fisherwoman, and lawyer for the tribe, credits the “colonial mindset and racism” with preventing the dam demolition from happening sooner. She fought against the core American value that nature is here to serve humans at whatever cost to nature. For Cordalis, the Klamath River is more than a waterway: It is a relative, with its own spirit. In 2019, she helped push the Yurok government to grant the Klamath legal personhood, allowing tribal members to seek remedies through the justice system if the river is harmed.

The destruction of the first dam began in June, and the experience was profound for Cordalis and Mark Bransom, CEO of the KRRC. The entire project is scheduled to wrap up in late 2024, and the dam removal is expected to lead to better water quality and improved conditions for the fish and other species that live in the river.

Environment, World, Indigenous Rights

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