Oregon to Benefit from $2 Million in Federal Money for Dam Removal

by Chad Hultz

In a significant stride towards environmental conservation and river revitalization, Oregon is set to benefit from $2 million in federal money allocated for dam removal. This move, a part of a growing recognition of the crucial role rivers play in ecosystem health, targets enhancing salmon populations, promoting fish migration, and supporting habitat improvement. The importance of such endeavors cannot be understated, as they address critical barriers to biodiversity and aim to rebalance natural ecosystems that have been disrupted by human infrastructure.

The Federal Funding Initiative

The Federal Funding Initiative for dam removal in Oregon represents a significant investment by the federal government to restore habitat for endangered runs of salmon and other native fish. This initiative is part of a broader effort to improve fish migration in rivers and enhance native fish conservation efforts across the state.

Overview of the $2 million federal grant

The federal government has allocated nearly $2 million towards two pivotal projects in rural Oregon, aiming to rejuvenate the habitat for endangered salmon and other native fish species. Specifically, approximately $1.2 million of this grant is directed towards the Illinois River project, while $750,000 is earmarked for habitat restoration in Wallowa County. These projects stand as integral components of the $70 million funding recently announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This funding is designated for 29 projects nationwide, intended to ameliorate fish habitat in rivers and streams under its National Fish Passage Program. Notably, this program, established in 1999, has traditionally allocated about $18 million per year nationwide. However, it received a substantial boost with an additional $200 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for the period 2022 through 2026.

Comparison with other regional projects

When comparing the Oregon projects to other regional initiatives, it's evident that federal funding for dam removal is dispersed across various programs and agencies, making it challenging to pinpoint the exact allocation for dam removal projects specifically. Despite this, the Oregon initiative is part of a larger national movement, underscored by the 2022 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which allocates $733 million for dam safety projects, including dam decommissioning. This is significant in the context of a recent estimate predicting the removal of between 4,000 and 32,000 dams in the United States by 2050.

It's important to note that while funding for dam removal is spread across numerous federal programs and agencies, most of this funding is generally aimed at restoring ecosystems and aquatic habitats, with dam removal being a less frequent application. Specifically, programs like those run by NOAA, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), and the Army Corps of Engineers under its Environmental Restoration Activities (ERA) often prioritize other types of projects. However, the FEMA Rehabilitation of High Hazard Dams grant program and the NRCS Watershed Rehabilitation Program stand out for their specific focus on dams, although only the former currently considers removal as an option.

In summary, the Federal Funding Initiative for dam removal in Oregon not only highlights the state's commitment to environmental conservation and habitat restoration but also reflects a growing national trend towards river restoration and the enhancement of aquatic ecosystems. Through these efforts, endangered species of fish like salmon are given a fighting chance to thrive once more in their natural habitats.

Illinois River Project

The Importance of the Pomeroy Dam Removal

The Pomeroy Dam, constructed in the 1940s on the Illinois River in southern Oregon, is undergoing significant changes to address longstanding environmental concerns. This dam, lacking a fish ladder, has been a formidable barrier to migrating fish, impeding the natural movement of species such as coho, Chinook, Pacific lamprey, cutthroat trout, and steelhead. These species are crucial to the biodiversity of the area and have seen their populations decline due to such obstructions. Furthermore, the dam's outdated design contributes to flooding risks during high river levels following storms, posing a threat to surrounding communities and ecosystems. The removal of the Pomeroy Dam is a pivotal step towards rejuvenating the river's natural flow and restoring access to over 100 miles of critical fish spawning habitat for these threatened fish populations.

Expected Environmental Impact

The environmental implications of the Pomeroy Dam removal are profound, particularly for the Illinois River, a federally designated wild and scenic river and a significant tributary to the Rogue River. Both rivers are vital for salmon, providing essential spawning and rearing habitats above the dam. The Southern Oregon Coast Coho, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, are among the species expected to benefit significantly from the dam's removal. The project aims to restore the natural river ecosystem, allowing for the free movement of fish and the dispersal of sediments, which is essential for creating healthy habitats. Sucker Creek, recognized for its high priority for protection and restoration, is an example of the critical habitats that will benefit. It supports significant populations of coho salmon, fall chinook salmon, and winter steelhead, despite past impacts from human activities. The dam removal is anticipated to enhance these populations, contributing to the broader efforts of riparian zone restoration and species recovery in the region.

Project Timeline and Completion

The timeline for the Pomeroy Dam removal project is ambitious, with expectations set for completion by the end of summer. This rapid pace underscores the project's prioritization and the urgency of addressing the ecological issues posed by the dam. The project's swift progression is a testament to the collaborative efforts between various stakeholders, including federal agencies, local communities, and environmental organizations. As the project moves forward, it represents a significant milestone in the larger movement towards river restoration and environmental conservation in Oregon and beyond. The successful completion of this project will not only restore vital habitats for endangered fish species but also serve as a model for similar initiatives across the country, highlighting the importance of balancing human infrastructure with the needs of the natural environment.

Wallowa County Project

In the heart of Oregon's Snake River Basin, the Wallowa County Project emerges as a beacon of hope for the restoration of native migratory fish species and the revitalization of local ecosystems. Spearheaded by the collaborative efforts of various stakeholders, this initiative seeks to address long-standing environmental challenges posed by the Wallowa Lake Dam and its impact on fish migration and local biodiversity.

Role of the Nez Perce Tribe

Central to the Wallowa County Project is the involvement of the Nez Perce Tribe, a community with deep historical ties to the region and a vested interest in the preservation of its natural resources. Over the past two decades, the tribe has been at the forefront of efforts to restore all native species back into the Wallowa and Lostine Rivers, including tribal fishing practices. Their leadership in updating small dams known as diversions, which can trap fish and prevent them from migrating upriver, is crucial. The tribe aims to repair eight aging diversions on the Wallowa River, with initial funding covering the first two. This endeavor not only benefits the fish species but also enhances the efficiency and infrastructure of the diversions for local users.

Project Specifics and Goals

The Wallowa Lake Dam, constructed in 1916 and rebuilt in 1929, plays a pivotal role in water storage for irrigation and municipal purposes. However, its design, lacking fish passage or screening, has rendered it a complete barrier to fish movement between Wallowa Lake and the River. The project focuses on rehabilitating this dam to meet current safety standards, reclaim storage under existing water rights, and introduce fish passage and screening facilities, including fish ladder installation. Furthermore, the initiative seeks to address several downstream barriers, including unscreened irrigation diversions, to ensure migrating fish can access the newly constructed passages at the dam and migrate without being entrained into irrigation fields.

Benefits for Local Biodiversity and Communities

The rehabilitation of Wallowa Lake Dam and the removal of downstream barriers are anticipated to yield significant benefits for local biodiversity and communities. Restoring fish passage is expected to facilitate the return of species such as bull trout, mountain whitefish, wild rainbow trout, and potentially steelhead to Wallowa Lake. Moreover, the project aims to reintroduce sockeye salmon to the lake, reviving a species that once thrived in the area and held cultural significance for Native American tribes. Enhanced flows in the Wallowa River and its tributaries, resulting from the project and river remeandering, will improve wildlife habitat and benefit other local fish and wildlife, thereby contributing to the overall ecological health of the region.

This comprehensive approach to river restoration and habitat conservation in Wallowa County not only underscores the importance of collaborative efforts in environmental stewardship but also highlights the critical role of indigenous communities in leading such initiatives. Through the Wallowa County Project, stakeholders aim to create a sustainable future for the region's rivers and their inhabitants, ensuring the preservation of these vital ecosystems for generations to come.

Environmental and Economic Implications

The initiative to remove dams in Oregon, particularly the efforts surrounding the Klamath River and projects in rural areas like the Illinois River and Wallowa County, heralds significant environmental and economic implications. These endeavors are not just about dismantling physical structures but about revitalizing ecosystems and bolstering local economies through strategic habitat restoration, watershed management, and the promotion of sustainable practices.

Impact on Local Ecosystems

1. Restoration of Natural Habitats: The removal of dams, such as the four hydroelectric barriers along the Klamath River, is poised to rejuvenate over 400 stream-miles of historic spawning habitat for key species like salmon, steelhead, and lamprey. This action directly addresses the barriers that have long hindered fish migration, enhancing river connectivity and allowing these species to access critical upstream areas for spawning.

2. Alleviation of Water Quality Issues: Dams have been identified as contributing factors to the proliferation of toxic blue-green algae, which not only poses a threat to wildlife and human health but also affects water temperatures and oxygen levels. By eliminating the stagnant reservoirs behind dams, the projects aim to significantly improve water quality, benefiting both aquatic life and the communities relying on these water sources through effective sediment management.

3. Biodiversity BoostT: he concerted efforts to remove barriers and restore rivers to their natural state are expected to lead to a resurgence in local biodiversity. The reestablishment of free-flowing rivers facilitates the return of species to their native habitats, fostering a healthier, more diverse ecosystem.

Potential Boost to Local Economies

4. Job Creation: The comprehensive approach to dam removal and river restoration, particularly through the Klamath River Renewal Corporation's (KRRC) activities, is anticipated to generate employment opportunities. Directly, the deconstruction and subsequent restoration work could create hundreds of jobs in the region. Indirectly, these activities are expected to stimulate the creation of over a thousand jobs in support industries, including food service and hospitality.

5. Revitalization of Fishing Industries:The restoration of salmon runs, integral to the commercial and recreational fishing sectors, stands to inject vitality into these industries. Healthy salmon populations are essential to commercial fisheries, which have historically contributed $150 million per year to the economy. The reduction in fishery disasters, akin to the complete commercial closure in 2006 d ue to overharvesting, will mitigate economic losses and promote stability within these sectors, benefiting both the fisheries and local canneries.

6. Enhancement of Recreation and TourismT: he projects not only aim to restore ecological balance but also to enhance recreational opportunities for local communities and visitors. The revival of thriving fish populations and improved water quality are likely to attract outdoor enthusiasts, contributing to the growth of the local recreation industry and supporting the broader Klamath Basin economy, including activities like whitewater rafting.

In sum, the environmental and economic implications of dam removal in Oregon extend far beyond the immediate benefits to salmon and other native fish species. These initiatives represent a holistic approach to environmental conservation, promising to restore ecological integrity while simultaneously fostering economic resilience and growth within the region. Through these concerted efforts, Oregon is setting a precedent for sustainable river restoration and habitat conservation that could serve as a model for similar projects nationwide.

Challenges and Controversies

Technical and Logistical Hurdles

The process of dam removal involves significant technical and logistical challenges, particularly concerning the management of sediment. Opponents of the initiative express concerns about the potential for flooding and the implications of sediment release. Historically, sediment accumulated behind dams can pose a significant environmental management challenge when these structures are removed. The fear is that the sudden release of stored sediment could harm aquatic life, particularly salmon, by covering spawning beds and affecting water quality downstream. Effective river bank stabilization and river dredging techniques are crucial to mitigate these risks.

Furthermore, logistical issues such as the reconfiguration of water channels and the restoration of riverbanks demand meticulous planning and execution. These tasks require not only significant financial investment but also coordination among multiple stakeholders, including local governments, environmental agencies, and community groups.

Local Opposition and Support

Local opposition to dam removal projects is rooted in economic and recreational concerns. Communities living near these reservoirs, such as those around Copco Lake, rely on the dams for tax revenue, employment, and recreational opportunities. The potential loss of these benefits has led to significant community resistance. For instance, residents fear that property values will plummet once the lakes disappear, as evidenced by a drop in property values around Copco Lake in anticipation of dam removal. This economic impact extends to local governance; for example, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors has highlighted concerns about new flooding risks and decreased property tax revenues.

Moreover, the sentiment among local populations is that the removal of dams could lead to irreversible changes to their way of life. Residents like Francis Gill and Danny Fontaine from Copco Lake have voiced their concerns about losing access to recreational activities such as boating and the potential instability of the land post-dam removal, similar to concerns expressed in communities like Enterprise and Joseph.

In contrast, there are groups and individuals who support dam removal, citing long-term environmental benefits such as improved water quality and restored natural habitats. Educational efforts by experts like Desiree Tullos from Oregon State University aim to alleviate fears by explaining that many anticipated problems, such as severe flooding and water quality degradation, rarely materialize to the extent feared.

This dichotomy of opinions illustrates the complex interplay of environmental conservation efforts and community interests, making the path to dam removal a contentious and multifaceted challenge.

Future of Dam Removal in Oregon

The removal of the four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River marks a pivotal moment in Oregon's environmental conservation efforts. This significant endeavor is not just a local or state initiative but a crucial step toward restoring the health of the Klamath River and the communities that depend on it. Such projects underscore the importance of ongoing efforts and future plans in the realm of dam removal and river restoration.

Ongoing Projects and Future Plans

7. Klamath River Restoration: The JC Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate dams are scheduled for removal by the end of next summer. This project, the largest of its kind in the country, aims to reopen hundreds of miles of salmon habitat, vital to Native American cultures throughout the Klamath Basin. It also promises the restoration of thousands of acres of land, potentially returning some areas to Native American tribes displaced by dam construction over a century ago.

8. Collaboration with Native American Tribes: The state is in discussions with the Shasta and several other tribes about the acquisition and co-management of lands along reservoir and dam sites. This collaborative effort highlights the importance of integrating indigenous knowledge and leadership in environmental restoration projects.

9. Habitat Restoration Efforts: Many tribes are actively working on habitat restoration projects on the Klamath River and its tributaries to create inviting places for fish to return. This includes tagging young hatchery salmon and releasing them above the dams to study how they use the habitat, with plans to release up to 10,000 spring chinook in the Williamson and Wood River tributaries.

10. Sandy River Delta Dam Removal: Another project focused on restoring fish habitat at the confluence of the Sandy and Columbia rivers is underway. This project aims to reconnect the East Channel, benefiting juvenile salmonids and reducing the potential for juvenile stranding and death.

Importance for National Environmental Policy

The momentum generated by the Klamath River restoration project is propelling a renewed energy to restore and protect rivers through dam removal across the nation. With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) making $800 million available for dam removal, there is a significant opportunity to leverage these funds for river restoration on a national scale, potentially benefiting the National Wild and Scenic River System.

• National GoalsAmerican Rivers has set ambitious goals to remove 30,000 dams and open 300,000 miles of rivers by 2050. The Klamath River project serves as a catalyst for these efforts, demonstrating the potential benefits of dam removal for water quality, aquatic resources, fisheries, and terrestrial resources.

• Economic and Recreational BenefitsThe regional economy is expected to experience a significant, permanent boost from dam removal and restoration efforts. Benefits include increased income from commercial and subsistence fishing, ocean and in-river recreational fishing, riverine recreation, and tourism. Improved water quality will also enhance recreational boating experiences.

• Utilization of BIL FundingWith the BIL funding acting as a down payment for river restoration, there is a critical need to work quickly to ensure the effective use of these funds. This involves demonstrating the need for additional funding for removing dams and securing support for restoring rivers for future generations, with organizations like WaterWatch of Oregon playing a crucial role.

The future of dam removal in Oregon, influenced by the landmark Klamath River project, sets a precedent for similar initiatives nationwide. By focusing on collaborative efforts, habitat restoration, and leveraging federal funding, Oregon is leading the way in creating sustainable and thriving ecosystems through the strategic removal of dams.

Amid the dynamic interplay of environmental restoration, economic revitalization, and community engagement, Oregon's initiatives in dam removal, illustrated by the diverse projects on the Illinois River, Wallowa County, and notably, the Klamath River, underscore a pivotal shift towards rebalancing our interaction with natural ecosystems. The strategic allocation of federal funding towards these endeavors not only reflects a commitment to environmental stewardship but also anticipates the domino effect of positive outcomes ranging from bolstered salmon populations to revitalized local economies and augmented biodiversity. These concerted efforts vividly demonstrate the multifaceted benefits of removing outdated infrastructures, thereby fostering a legacy of healthier rivers and thriving communities.

Looking forward, the path carved by Oregon in dam removal and river restoration carries seminal implications for national environmental policy and underscores the imperative of sustainable management of natural resources. As these projects progress, they not only pave the way for rejuvenating aquatic habitats and enhancing community resilience but also serve as beacons for future initiatives aimed at restoring the ecological integrity of rivers across the United States. Incorporating infrastructure updates and fish restoration projects, Oregon’s endeavors highlight the potent intersection of conservation, cultural respect, and community prosperity, setting a benchmark for environmental and economic symbiosis. By drawing on lessons learned and the successes achieved, especially in fish restoration, these efforts underscore the importance of a holistic approach to environmental stewardship.