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In a win for local tribes, major dams along the Klamath River in Oregon will be removed

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

After nearly two decades of negotiation, the country's largest dam removal project is finally ready to go. Late last week, federal regulators gave the final approval to remove four hydroelectric dams from the Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern California. Cassandra Profita from Oregon Public Broadcasting has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And get down.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Woohoo.

CASSANDRA PROFITA, BYLINE: In late August, whitewater rafters splash gleefully over boulders in the Upper Klamath River. It's an awesome adventure, wet and seemingly wild. For rafting guide Bart Baldwin, there's nothing like it.

BART BALDWIN: This is the biggest bang for your buck that you can get in the summer - 95 degrees, 72-degree water, 42 named rapids. And they're long and exciting and explosive. It's pretty neat.

PROFITA: But it's not natural to have so much water in the Klamath River at the end of August. The water released from PacifiCorp's J.C. Boyle Dam upstream from the rapids is the only reason big rafts can float this stretch of the river all summer long. And when it's gone, the river will flow more naturally and its water levels will be too low for big whitewater rafting trips in the summer. That means Baldwin will have to redesign his rafting business.

BALDWIN: I feel like I'm losing a good friend. I've run this river a lot, and it's my favorite. I don't know - it just feels like home.

PROFITA: But the dams are also blocking salmon from swimming upstream and polluting the water salmon depend on. For Native American tribes in the Klamath River Basin, that's an existential threat to their culture and their fishing traditions.

TROY HOCKADAY: My goal is to fight for those fish and keep fighting for them until I can't fight anymore.

PROFITA: Troy Hockaday is a Karuk tribal council member and a fisherman in Northern California. He says the salmon will have a lot more spawning habitat after the dams come out.

HOCKADAY: It's going to be one of the best things for our fish and our fisheries, where I can have my grandson, who's 1 years old today, to be down there fishing and all the sudden, here, Grandpa, here's a fish. I can't wait for that day.

PROFITA: PacifiCorp agreed to remove J.C. Boyle Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate dams to avoid the cost of helping salmon swim around them.

BOB GRAVELY: And so that would have been very expensive, just adding modern fish ladders.

PROFITA: Bob Gravely is with PacifiCorp. He says removing the dams was actually the cheaper option. And the electricity they generate is easily replaced. It's less than 2% of the utility's supply. This year amid ongoing drought, irrigation water for farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin was cut off to protect threatened and endangered sucker fish in Klamath Lake and salmon in the Klamath River. Gravel says the dams don't store water for agriculture. And removing them won't solve any water supply problems.

GRAVELY: The dams - they don't take water out of the river. So there's still going to be the same water supply at the end of the day.

PROFITA: But opponents of dam removal say they're worried farmers might have to give up irrigation water to flush out the sediment stored behind the dams. And they say scientists can't guarantee that salmon won't be harmed when all that sediment flows down river after the dams come out.

BRANDON CRISS: This is seen as - in many respects, as a grand experiment. We're going to try it and see if it works. Our concern is that it won't.

PROFITA: Brandon Criss chairs the board of supervisors in California's Siskiyou County, which is home to three of the four dams slated for removal. He says the dams benefit surrounding communities by providing tax revenue, jobs, recreation and lakefront property on the reservoirs. And all of that will be lost when the dams are removed.

CRISS: So if it doesn't work, we have all the problems but none of the solutions, and we're left holding the bag.

PROFITA: Supporters of dam removal say a free-flowing river will ultimately mean cleaner, colder water with fewer toxic algae blooms. Hockaday says he's containing his excitement until deconstruction is underway.

HOCKADAY: The dams are going to come out, but I'm not going to celebrate until I see an excavator on top of the dam moving that rock. And once that day happens, then you'll see me jump up and down and scream and holler to the creator about what's happening. But until that day, I mean, we still got a little more to go. But that's the day I'll celebrate.

PROFITA: The dam removal process is on track to start next year with the biggest dams scheduled to come out in 2024. For NPR News, I'm Cassandra Profita in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.