Spinning Science: Klamath Dam Removal Major Step in Restoring Chinook not a $1.4 Billion Gamble

In 2020, four dams obstructing the Klamath River in northern California may finally reach their demise.  For many decades, salmon have not been able to reach the upper portions of the river, and the dams have created an unhealthy environment responsible for massive fish kills and closed commercial salmon fishing along the California and Oregon coast.

In a lengthy process involving many parties, dam removal is now a real possibility.  Water diversion to farmers in the Klamath basin and energy costs are cited as concerns of those against removal.  Now, thanks to media spin, opponents have a new complaint.

According to a LA Times article, dam removal offers “no guarantee of success” in restoring chinook runs.

Even after the decommission of dams that have for decades blocked migrating salmon, the panel said, biologists would probably have to truck the fish around a stretch of the river plagued by low oxygen levels.

“I think there’s no way in hell they’re going to solve” the basin’s water-quality problems, said Wim Kimmerer, an environmental research professor at San Francisco State, one of six experts who reviewed the plan. “It doesn’t seem to me like they’ve thought about the big picture very much.”

The media, including the LA Times, have spun this information with headlines against dam removal.  From “Scientists find holes in Klamath River dam removal plan” to “A $1.4 billion gamble“, the real information, as I see it, of the report is being overshadowed.  The LA Times does mention the positive aspects of the report, but it is overshadowed by the headline and the negativity of the rest of the piece:

The scientists’ June 13 report describes the proposals as a “major step forward” that could boost the salmon population by about 10% in parts of the upper basin. But to achieve that, the panel cautions, the project must tackle vexing problems, including poor water quality and fish disease.

The report concluded that the agreement doesn’t adequately address those issues. Under the proposal, vegetation in restored wetlands and stream banks would be expected to absorb the phosphorus from natural and agricultural sources that promotes harmful algal blooms. But such a method, Kimmerer said, would require converting an area roughly equivalent to 40% of the irrigated farmland in the Upper Klamath Lake watershed to wetlands.

“This does not seem like a feasible level of effort,” the report notes.

If approved by Congress and the Secretary of the Interior, dam removal is the first step in restoring native Chinook runs. It is not the only step. This report cautions there is more work to be done, which should also be addressed in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA).  In fact, the report states:

The Proposed Action appears to be a major step forward in conserving target fish populations compared with decades of vigorous disagreements, obvious fish passage barriers, and continued ecological degradation.

Nine factors are identified as challenges to restoring Chinook runs.  From water quality to hatchery versus wild populations, scientists are being realistic about dam removal success.  Why the media has chosen to focus on these challenges as “holes” rather than focusing on dam removal as “a major step forward” feels like propaganda rather than balanced reporting.

Photo:  Attribution Some rights reserved by patrickmccully

Written by Jennifer Lance

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