Aspen Action Forum documentary looks at largest restoration project in American history

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times
Amy Cordalis, a member of the Yurok Tribe, brings in a salmon near the mouth of the Klamath River in Requa, California. Biologists believe the removal of four dams on the Klamath River would greatly increase the health and size of its salmon runs.
Courtesy photo |

‘A River Between Us’

Film and discussion, Aspen Action Forum

When: Friday, 7 p.m.

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

Cost: $20

Speaker: Jason Atkinson, co-director and former Oregon senator

A little more than 100 years ago, the Klamath River was 255 miles of free-flowing water originating in Southern Oregon that traveled unobstructed through Northern California to the Pacific Ocean.

The clear, clean waters also held the third-largest salmon runs in the Lower 48 states with the spawning grounds considered sacred lands by the local Native Americans. The Yurok, Karuk and Klamath tribes still live along the river.

But starting in 1909, the first of four hydroelectric dams was built near the California and Oregon borders, and the salmon runs have never been the same since. Parasites and the growth of toxic blue-green algae also contaminate the warm water behind the dams during the summer.

Farmers in Southeast Oregon rely on the Klamath to irrigate their crops. Fishermen, like the local tribes, want to see the salmon and steelhead runs restored to healthy levels. PacifiCorp, the owner of the four dams, has agreed to remove the dams but wants protection from potential lawsuits after the removals. People who bought lakefront property behind the dams want compensation for the money they’ll lose when their properties are no longer waterfront.

“Two months out of each year, the water coming out of the dams is so polluted that there are signs posted warning people to stay away from the water,” said Jason Atkinson, a former Oregon senator who co-directed “A River Between Us,” a feature-length documentary about the restoration of the Klamath River. “The signs say not to touch or drink the water and to keep your pets away from it. The polluted waters occur during times when the local tribes celebrate traditional ceremonies along the river.”

Atkinson is in Aspen to premiere “A River Between Us” at 7 p.m. Friday at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the Aspen Action Forum. There will be a discussion about the film following its presentation.

What’s unique about the Klamath River restoration project are the heroes and potential for a win-win solution on several fronts.

“We’re seeing people that were once bitter enemies now working together,” Atkinson said. “The effort among tribes, anglers, irrigators, agencies, conservation groups and PacifiCorp has produced the most comprehensive river-basin restoration project in history, which includes the removal of four dams.”

Atkinson grew up in Medford, Oregon, and is a fifth-generation fisherman on the Klamath. His grandfather taught him how to fish for the native steelhead that spawn in the Klamath and introduced him to several local tribal chiefs.

“On their deathbed, my grandparents told me my job in life was to restore this river,” Atkinson said during the film trailer. “This river and this story is bigger than fish and much bigger than dams. It’s about the longest water war, it’s about some really old hatreds, it’s about broken politics and it’s about a group of people who started to lead and got ahead of their politicians to do the right thing.”

The film trailer highlights some stunning cinematography while featuring the breathtaking beauty surrounding the Klamath River.

One of the more powerful moments in the trailer occurs as both salmon from the native fishermen and potatoes from the local farmers cook together on stakes. In the background, the fisherman and the farmer embrace, a scene that just a decade ago would seem unbelievable.

“We’ve seen three generations that grew up hating each,” Atkinson said. “Now, people that were once arch-enemies are working together. If you heal people, you will heal the river. The efforts among the tribes, anglers, PacifiCorp and others has produced the most comprehensive river-basin restoration project in history, which includes the removal of four dams. We have a chance for our generation to get it right.”

Atkinson said 42 groups have gotten together and cut a restoration deal where the river and the communities that surround it all win. Now it’s up to the White House to endorse the project.

“The president needs to sign an executive order to have the dams removed,” Atkinson said. “This would give the community what it wants. Only the president can ink the deal.”