As new sources of renewable energy grow, there has been a large-scale effort to remove dams that generate hydroelectric power across the country.
There are more than 90,000 dams across the country, but only 6% of them are used to generate electricity, according to the Most are used for irrigation, recreation and drinking.
As we move toward a greener future, it might seem contradictory that officials are advocating for their removal, but the numbers show while they may be good for energy, they’re not great for the environment or those whose cultures rely on it.
There’s a symbiotic relationship that exists along the Klamath River in Northern California. The Pacific Ocean feeds its existence and, in turn, the river feeds those who call its shores home.
Toni Rae Peters is a member of the Yurok Tribe, a group that settled along the Klamath thousands of years ago. Over the generations, it has been the tribe’s lifeblood, providing its members with spirit, food and purpose as the river has historically played host to the third-largest salmon run in the country.
Most days, Peters would be out on the water catching them. But this isn’t most days.
These days, Peters and the rest of her people are banned from fishing along the Klamath — their primary food source — because the salmon have been on the edge of extinction for years. A big part of it is due to the Iron Gate Dam located 175 miles upstream.
“Ever since the 2012 fish kill, it’s affected not just me, my grandkids and my whole family, but all the elders around us,” Peters told Scripps News. “There’s not enough to feed my family.”
The early 1900s brought a new age of dam construction in the United States. At the time, they were engineering marvels that showcased human ingenuity as they created power, recreation and drinking water. But they are pricey, and their licensing processes became cumbersome, so as time marched on, people started looking elsewhere for energy.
In the late 1960s, hydropower was the only form of renewable energy used in the U.S. Today, it’s only a cut of the pie as it comprises just over half of the energy output as wind energy alone, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Add on emerging data that shows dams disrupt natural habitats, emit more carbon than previously thought, and pollute rivers and streams, and many dams became barren as companies stopped renewing their leases on them. Tribes like the Yurok have been feeling and vocalizing those effects for decades.
“During a regular fishing season when we have enough fish to have a fishery here, a tribal fishery, there would be docks out here, there would be boats, and there would be a bunch of activity,” said Barry McCovery, Yurok tribal fisheries director. People would be out here fishing with nets trying to catch their salmon for the year. … but as you can see, it’s fallen on hard times and everything is shut down.”
It’s led us to where we are today as people like Mark Bransom have been instrumental in removing more than 2,000 dams over the last 90 years with the highest number of removals coming in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Come next year that number will be one higher when Bransom’s crew finishes its removal of the Iron Gate Dam, a $500 million project.
“I understand the opposition to the project. There are a number of people who have lived for years around these lakes who really value what these lakes offer,” McCovery added. “But I’m optimistic that we can foresee a time when a restored river brings a lot of values and appreciation for the environment that’s going to result from restoring some sort of ecological balance to the area.”
There is a symbiotic relationship along these shores: one between river and people.
“Our health — our mental health, our physical health, our spiritual health — is also connected to the river,” McCorvey said. “You know, we’re just kind of building these sideboards, and then the river will go in and do all the hard work and work to heal itself, and as the river starts to heal itself I look forward to the Yurok people feeling good about that and hopefully having some catharsis and some healing ourselves.”