River of Renewal chronicles the long conflict over the 10 million acre Klamath River Basin, which spans the Oregon-California border. Competing demands for water, food, and energy have pitted farmers, American Indians, and commercial fishermen against each other for decades.
Remarkably, this conflict over resources has led to a consensus for conservation in this vast river basin that was once North America’s third greatest salmon-producing river. The outcome will likely be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history and the most ambitious effort ever to restore the habitat of a federally protected species.
River of Renewal shows one of the great rivers of America in crisis while also telling the story of a “sidewalk Indian”, Jack Kohler, who discovers his roots among the Klamath River tribes. For Kohler, the conflict is a journey of self-discovery as he uncovers the elemental bond between California native tribes, the river, and its most legendary denizen, the salmon.
Kohler comes to the mouth of the Klamath River to make a film about the 1978 Salmon War. But an event occurs that brings the conflict into the 21st century. In May 2001, a federal judge’s ruling under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to cut off irrigation water sparks an angry protest from local farmers. Then in 2002, ignoring the ESA, the Bush Administration orders the unlimited release of water to farmers. Later that year, 80,000 spawning salmon die in the Klamath estuary, which leads to the collapse of the salmon fishery off the California and Oregon coasts.
The polarization of Klamath Basin communities gives way to conflict resolution and consensus building. Recognizing that their livelihoods all depend on the health of the river, stakeholders who had been antagonists agree to share the water and to demand the removal of the four dams.
The hopeful outcome of the conflict is a lesson in the interdependence of economic recovery with ecological restoration, and the value of finding common ground among competing interests.
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