The dam removal on the Klamath River, scheduled for early 2024, is an important milestone on the road to restoring America’s healthy rivers. This action will restore nearly 300 miles of river habitat in the Klamath and its tributaries in southern Oregon and northern California, allowing salmon, a critical source of economic and nutritional value to local communities, to return. As the world’s largest dam removal and river restoration project in history, this project will have lasting impacts on the health of this river and represents an opportunity to build momentum for continued global river protection and restoration .
Sockets and disconnection
The importance of damming the Klamath River comes down, first and foremost, to the consequences of damming rivers. Healthy rivers can flow freely along their paths, moving sediments and providing habitats and migration routes for aquatic species. In recent history, rivers have been valued primarily as sources of water for cities, irrigation and hydropower. But rivers provide a wider set of services that offer immense benefits to economies and people. These “hidden” benefits, such as freshwater fish populations, stable deltas, fertile floodplains, flood mitigation, spiritual and mental well-being are often not easily quantified, understood or maintained and, therefore, they are not a priority for management. Until they get lost, that is.
Infrastructure, such as hydroelectric dams, is the main culprit in interfering with a river’s flow and connectivity. The wrong dam in the wrong place not only changes the way a river flows, but also fragments the river into sections that are disconnected from each other. Worldwide, widespread construction of dams and other water infrastructure has left only one-third of long rivers flowing freely. Dams also change the natural movement of water from rivers to their floodplains, affecting species movement, floodplain agriculture, soil nutrient replenishment, and more.
However, changes in river connectivity affect more than the landscape. Animals that use rivers to find food, breed or find new habitat as the seasons change, such as migratory fish such as salmon, river dolphins, river turtles, otters and many other species, they can’t do it anymore. Aquatic animal populations need a lot of help. Populations of freshwater species have declined by an average of 83 percent since 1970, and nearly a third of all freshwater fish face extinction. The degradation of rivers is one of the main causes of these decreases. And there is also the human cost. People who depend on rivers for food or income are also greatly affected by these changes in the river.
Planning to protect and restore
These losses are not inevitable and inevitable. River protection i catering, including dam removal, can play an important role in returning rivers to their full potential. Given the critical state of rivers and freshwater species, protecting the remaining free rivers and restoring fragmented ones are actions that should be taken sooner rather than later.
The Klamath River project is part of a growing movement to do just that. It will add to a growing list of rivers with their dams removed, including nearly 7,000 in Europe. The United States was an early adopter of this strategy and is expanding its commitment to dam removal and river ecosystem restoration (with support from Uncommon Dialogue) through $800 million in allocated funding for dam removal in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and key hydroelectric legislation. introduced in 2021.
The Uncommon Dialogue is a coalition of state and federal government agencies, NGOs, academics, First Nations and hydropower experts seeking to address the twin challenges of climate change and river conservation. Its goal is to advance the benefits of renewable energy and hydropower storage and the environmental and economic benefits of healthy rivers through the rehabilitation, modernization, and/or removal of dams in the United States.
With the looming uncertainty of climate change growing every year, there is a need to protect and restore existing natural resources, such as rivers, wetlands, and other inland waters, on a larger scale in the United States and around the world. So, in an effort to address this demand and increase conservation more broadly, the US government launched the America the Beautiful initiative to conserve, connect and restore 30 percent of its national lands and waters by 2030 .The shift towards protection and restoration is greater. than any nation, however. That’s why WWF and others are proposing a similar global commitment in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) being negotiated this month. This includes advocating for the restoration of freshwater ecosystems and adopting key numerical targets: at least 300,000 kilometers (roughly 200,000 miles) of rivers and at least 350 million hectares of wetlands and other freshwater habitats (inland water) should ‘be in the process of restoration in 2030 to reverse freshwater biodiversity. and loss of ecosystems. This would mean that countries signing the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will commit to protecting and restoring rivers and other inland waters, bringing invaluable benefits to people and nature.
Close-up of fresh water systems
So far, freshwater systems have been neglected in these larger protection efforts. Treated as a complement to land protections, freshwater ecosystems have received insufficient attention, leading to drastic species declines. The explicit inclusion of freshwater ecosystems in area-based conservation targets, indicators and implementation mechanisms in the GBF is critical to recovering and safeguarding some of the planet’s most threatened ecosystems and biodiversity.
Progress toward the goals of protecting 30 percent of freshwater habitat and restoring 300,000 kilometers can take many forms, as there likely won’t be a single silver bullet to solve this challenge. It will take global action and leadership. That is why the US should continue its actions to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems domestically and support the inclusion of similar goals in the GBF and the implementation of these goals globally. Investments can and should be aligned to deliver solutions to related global treaties and commitments, such as the Ramsar Convention, the Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and in line with goals of the next United Nations Water Conference in 2023.
Dam removal on the Klamath River is a huge win for environmentalists, native and local communities, and freshwater species. But we cannot and must not stop here. We have many more steps on this path to achieve our goal of renewing rivers and vital freshwater habitats.
Michele Thieme is the Vice President of Freshwater and Deputy Director of the Freshwater and Food Team at the World Wildlife Fund, where she supports WWF’s efforts to conserve freshwater ecosystems and manage river basins to support biodiversity and human livelihoods.
Sarah Davidson is the Director of Water Policy at the World Wildlife Fund, where she leads the design and implementation of effective policy initiatives and strategic partnerships with governments, multilateral and bilateral aid agencies and other stakeholders to advance the vision of a world where all major watersheds are sustainable. succeeded in supporting biodiversity and human livelihoods.
Sources: Convention on Biological Diversity; Federal News Network; Office of Senator Diane Feinstein; Pacific Corp; Stanford University; US Department of the Interior; White House Press Office; WWF
Photo credit: Iron Gate Dam Reservoir near Hornbrook, California, USA, courtesy of davidrh/Shutterstock.com.