Atkinson, a former Oregon state legislator for 14 years, wrote and produced the film “A River Between Us” documenting the restoration of the Klamath River. He is a Rodel Fellow with the Aspen Institute.
Today’s noisy partisan divide concerns me and makes the thought of meaningful collaboration across parties seem impossible. However, the largest river restoration project in history, spanning the California-Oregon border, tells a hopeful story offering a blueprint for political, conservation and economic progress.
People continue to believe the question of dam removal comes down to dams vs. irrigators, but that’s simply not true. The dams do nothing for irrigation – all four dams are located below the majority of farming and ranching operations – and dam removal does not change the ability to draw water for crops. This once mighty and highly productive river has for decades been hobbled by terrible water quality, which is aggravated by the dams. Toxic blue green algae, fostered by the warm, shallow water in the reservoirs, makes the river dangerous during hot summer months. The deadly C. Shasta parasite flourishes in dam-created conditions, rotting the guts of salmon and steelhead. The dams also cut off hundreds of miles of historical spawning and rearing habitat, access to which is essential for the recovery of these native fishes. Decimated fish stocks have severely impacted commercial and recreational salmon fishing industries, draining much-needed prosperity out of the Klamath region and robbed Klamath, Karuk and Yurok Tribes of sustenance and a vital cultural resource.
Thankfully, the river can be healed, and dam removal is foundational step in revitalization.
Planning and design work needed for reservoir drawdown, dam removal and river restoration is already underway. As the project moves into full swing it’s expected to directly create more than 400 high-paying jobs along the Klamath and support more than 1,000 local jobs indirectly. This will be a giant shot in the arm for the Klamath region, which has long struggled to regain its economic footing after the collapse of the timber industry.