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Come Back, Salmon

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In a huge victory for America's fisheries and rivers, a broad spectrum of environmentalists, utilities, farmers, Native American nations, fishermen, and public agencies agreed yesterday to restore 300 miles of North America's most important salmon grounds. Four dams on the Klamath River -- Iron Gage, Copco1, Copco2, and J.C. Boyle -- that have blocked salmon runs on the Klamath for a century will come down beginning in 2020.

Historically, the Klamath -- a river most folks outside of California and Oregon have never heard of -- was the third-biggest salmon run in the lower 48 states. The fish provided both an incredible commercial resource and a source of sustenance to tribes including the Yurok, Karuk, Klamath, and Hoopa Valley. The remaining fish on the river have been in big trouble, particularly since 2002, when a Bush administration order to divert water need for fisheries for irrigation led to the death of 33,000 fish.

Now this fishery can begin to come back -- and in doing so provide a model for the gradual process of identifying those dams build in the 20th century that no longer meet 21st century needs, particularly in an era of climate change that makes connectivity -- the ability of species to relocate with the weather -- more important than ever. Hopefully what's happening on the Klamath can now provide a model for decommissioning four dams that have devastated salmon runs on the Snake River portion of the Upper Columbia River Basin -- the four infamous, never-should-have-been-built boondoggles of the 1950s.

On Monday the Obama administration ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to conduct studies on the possibility of removing four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River in Washington State in order to restore 13 species of salmon on the federal endangered species list. But only ten days earlier, the Administration had ducked the dam-removal issue by saying that it believed the recovery plan prepared by the Bush administration was adequate. The new study appears to keep the door to dam removal open -- but only a crack. Perhaps the fresh news from the Klamath can serve as the opening salvo in the battle for all of America's rivers and fisheries.

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