By Amy Cordalis
I don’t remember a time in my life without salmon. My family’s life revolved around the Klamath River salmon runs as they moved through the Yurok Reservation in Northern California. Every generation of my family since time immemorial fished at the same spots on the river – the salmon was in our DNA.
Growing up, I remember my parents loaded the gear and all five of us kids into the truck, drove to the fishing hole, set up camp, and then fished. We fished all 12 hours a day when the tribal fishery was open, sitting on the boat holding the net or on the shore waiting for salmon to “hit.” When we were lucky, a school of fish would move through and the gill net would come alive, corks bouncing up and down in the water, signaling success.
About six years ago, things started changing drastically, although I now know they had been worsening slowly, for decades.
We’d go fishing as we always had, but there would be no fish. Yurok Tribal Fisheries Department backed this up: very few fish were returning and each year their numbers dwindled. Further research showed that the returning runs from 2016 to 2021 were the smallest in history, representing about 1% to 5% of the historical run size.
This fisheries collapse is not unique to the Klamath River. Other major salmon producing rivers in the Northwest have and are experiencing historically low salmon runs. While there are many contributing factors to the decline, it’s becoming well accepted that dams are a major culprit.
On the Columbia, dams increase predation and slow water flows due to unnatural conditions that alter migration patterns. On the Sacramento, low flows due to agricultural diversions below dams increase water temperatures, making fish survival often impossible. On the Klamath, dams increase water temperatures and alter the riverbed, creating conditions that spread fish disease leading to fish kills.
In all these rivers, dams block fish from accessing hundreds of miles of historic salmon habitat. Unless we remove the most destructive dams, many salmon species could go extinct in our lifetime.
Of course, dams produce “green” energy, and some argue they should be used to help end the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. But nothing is truly green, or sustainable, if it impairs tribal cultures, river health and fish survival. Further, many of these dams are at the end of their lives, referred to as “legacy assets” by power companies, and would cost millions of dollars to bring up to modern standards.
Fortunately, we appear to be turning the corner. Recently, the Biden Administration acknowledged the importance of dam removal to restoring river salmon. The report stated dam removal was “essential” to restoring Snake River salmon stocks and that throughout the Columbia River, improving fish passage to blocked areas was essential to recovery.
On my river, the environmental analysis on Klamath Dam Removal by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission reached a similar finding, supporting dam removal as no other option provided so many ecosystem-wide benefits to restore salmon.
Importantly, both documents focused on how the loss of salmon on both rivers had devastated tribal fisheries like the Yurok’s, perpetuating historical inequities that can best be addressed through dam removal.
These reports allow us to better understand the negative impacts dams have on our rivers, fish, and the people dependent upon them. They empower us to make better choices that lead to the future we want to see. I can’t imagine life without salmon and if you can’t either, it’s time to remove dams.
President Teddy Roosevelt, who was in the White House when many dams were authorized and built, believed that conservation means development as much as it means protection. We tried development by damming rivers. It killed fish and rivers and harmed our tribal nations. Isn’t it time we try protection by undamming rivers? A life with salmon might depend upon it.
Amy Cordalis is an attorney and a member of the Yurok Tribe involved in the removal of four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon. She is a 2022 Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project, in cooperation with the Yale School of Climate Change Communication.
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