Restoring beauty and justice for the Klamath River

DEQ Director Richard Whitman recently stumbled on a 1958 KGW-TV documentary Crisis in the Klamath Basin. According to the Oregon Historical Society, the piece broke important new ground for television and the young producer, Tom McCall, who later would serve eight years as Oregon governor. McCall’s first documentary followed shortly after Congress voted to begin terminating treaty tribes, and previewed the disestablishment of the Klamath reservation of over a million acres.

“It was fascinating,” Whitman said. “I had never seen that kind of first-hand narrative about how tribal members felt about losing their reservation, losing their rights as a sovereign nation.”

The historic agreement to fund the removal of four lower Klamath River dams, announced Tuesday, represents a huge step forward in restoring not just miles of free-flowing rivers and lakes for fish, but also restoring some part of the cultural and social identity that the Klamath River tribes have had taken from them over the last 100 years. 

“I view the tribes as leading stewards of our environment and natural resources here in the Pacific Northwest,” Whitman said. “They have never lost their connection to the land and water and the life that depends on them.”

“I view the tribes as leading stewards of our environment and natural resources here in the Pacific Northwest,” Whitman said. “They have never lost their connection to the land and water and the life that depends on them.”

That’s why the agreement signed Tuesday – which makes it clear that the owner of the dams, Berkshire-Hathaway/PacifiCorp, supports dam removal, along with Oregon and California –  is such a big deal.

“It’s the states and Berkshire-Hathaway all saying: We are all in on restoring this resource to the tribes. This is a critical leading edge in the effort to put the environment in this part of Oregon back into balance.”

Klamath River

The Klamath salmon run once was the third largest in the nation, but the numbers have dwindled to near extinction levels after the dams were built cutting off hundreds of miles of habitat, and as water quality has steadily gotten worse.

“Their reservations were taken from them, their use of forest resources was taken from them and, over time, the fisheries are being taken from them,” Whitman said about the region’s tribes.

DEQ has a big responsibility to improve conditions in the Klamath, which runs nearly 260 miles from Klamath Falls through northern California. The dams create stagnant pools, which increase water temperature and contribute to harmful algae blooms and disease.

Removing the dams will have benefits rippling throughout the watershed, paving the way for fish to return to the upper basin, and opening the door to economic opportunity for the entire community.  However, more work remains to be done, and a next area of focus needs to be on working with farmers and ranchers in the basin to reduce nutrients that have overwhelmed Upper Klamath Lake, Whitman said.

“DEQ will have a central role in that work, along with the Department of Agriculture and local leaders,” he said. “We know the community can collaborate when it has a shared vision for a better future, and working with PacifiCorp and other partners we are beginning to help build a clear picture of a future that has a place for everyone.”

–Harry Esteve, DEQ communications manager

Published by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

DEQ’s mission is to be a leader in restoring, maintaining and enhancing the quality of Oregon’s air, land and water.

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