2023 cohort
Water and drought

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At Klamath River, historic dam removals to revive dwindling salmon population

After twenty years of protest and opposition, many of the Klamath dams near the California-Oregon border are finally coming down. […]

Astreya McKnight

September 11, 2023

Copco #1 dam is scheduled to be removed next year. Photo: Klamath River Renewal Corporation.

Copco #1 dam is scheduled to be removed next year. Photo: Klamath River Renewal Corporation.

About this story

This story was produced by a reporter in the 2023 cohort of the AAJA/Calmatters JCal program and originally published in Lost Coast Outpost.

After twenty years of protest and opposition, many of the Klamath dams near the California-Oregon border are finally coming down.

The Klamath Dam Removal Project began its first dam demolition in June. The project will be the largest dam removal in U.S. history and consists of the removal of four of the six dams along the Klamath River: J.C. Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate.

Once all four dams are removed, fish will have access to about 400 additional miles of habitat that was previously inaccessible to them, according to officials, allowing for the species to repopulate.

The dams had been causing diseases for the fish, especially at the Iron Gate hatchery where fish often returned to breed.

“In the Klamath right now, a majority of our juvenile fish die from diseases. And these diseases proliferate below Iron Gate dam,” said Craig Tucker, a Natural Resources Policy Advocate for the Karuk Tribe. “The flow of the river is most unnatural immediately below the dam and it’s thrown the ecosystem out of balance.”

Though the removals come after a generation of legal battles and international protests, dam management at PacifiCorp eventually decided that the dams did not benefit them enough to outweigh the costs required to meet environmental standards, according to Mike Zamore, former Chief of Staff of Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley.

“The dams are supposed to come out now for reasons really unrelated to politics. It’s really economics,” said Zamore.

Nevertheless, advocates are hopeful to see a return of the once-thriving fish population.

“By opening up all that habitat, we expect spawning fish through the system and we will expect populations to increase over time,” said Jim Simondet, the Klamath Basin Branch Supervisor for NOAA Fisheries, a federal agency.

Conflict over the dams’ impact came to a head in 2002 with the Klamath River fish kill, where an estimated 34,000 fish died, consisting primarily of Chinook salmon, after disease had eviscerated much of the population.

A 2005 University of Oregon study found that Karuk tribal members reduced their salmon consumption from 450 pounds per person per year to just five each year.

“And I’m sure now it’s even smaller,” said Brook Thompson, a Yurok and Karuk tribal member, Ph.D. student at UC Santa Cruz and part-time restoration engineer for the Yurok tribe.

Thompson explained that, because some reservations are in food deserts and it takes hours to get to a grocery store, accessible salmon is very important in ensuring that Indigenous people in the basin consume nutritional food. 

Weighing short-term adverse effects

Although removing the Klamath River dams is anticipated to have benefits for fish, humans, and the overall environment of the Klamath Basin, the removal process is expected to have some short-term adverse effects. The primary issue pertaining to dam removal is the sediment being held behind each dam. 

“A lot of that sediment is going to move through the river system and at some locations in the river system, those turbidity levels – that is the concentration of sediments and fine particulate matter – is going to be so high that it’s going to be a threat to those fisheries,” said Simondet.

Dr. Alison O’Dowd, an ecological restoration professor at Cal Poly Humboldt, is currently working on a study evaluating the downriver effects of dam removal on aquatic invertebrates and salmon. She plans to document the changes within these communities over five years: before, during and after the dams have been removed. 

“The invertebrate communities are going to get smothered by the sediment, and so only the ones that can live in that type of environment are going to survive. So then the fish will eat more of those types of insects,” Dr. O’Dowd said. “They also might feed more in the tributaries, because those are not going to be filled with sediment.”

No one is certain about the amount of time it will take for all of the released sediment to be flushed out of the river system. Dr. O’Dowd estimated that it will likely take less time for the sediment to travel if future years are really wet, but it will take much longer in the case of a drought year. Simondet gauged that turbidity levels will return to relatively normal in the span of one to two years. 

“The long-term benefits will far outweigh the short-term impacts. And so that’s kind of the evaluation that we undertook to determine whether or not dam removal was going to be beneficial for salmon or not,” said Simondet.

Many residents across the Klamath Basin appear to be in agreement that dam removal is a necessary and crucial step to improve the ecology of the Klamath River, but others are still opposed to the project.

“I think there’s this fear of the dam removal movement growing and more dams coming out,” Tucker said. “And I think there’s just a lot of misinformation out there about what the dams do and don’t do.”

Moss Driscoll, director of water policy for the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA), extended reasoning for why many of their members have an apprehension to the idea of dam removal.

“Our concern is not with the identified effects that we can see today,” said Driscoll. “It’s with the effects that haven’t been analyzed and aren’t fully thought out in a project that’s never been undertaken before of this nature and complexity.”

Simondet addressed another reason why upper basin landowners in specific might be opposed to dam removal.

“I think… they have a concern that, by opening up this habit that Coho used to be able to enjoy, that they’re going to have this additional risk under the Endangered Species Act,” said Simondet.

Decades of local and global activism

After the 2002 Klamath River fish kill, tribes and environmentalists sprung into action to prevent a tragedy of that scale from ever happening again. Thompson, the Yurok and Karuk tribal member, has been active in this movement from the beginning. She helped organize a rally at the Portland, Oregon, PacifiCorp building.

Tucker’s activism against the dams has taken him across the world.

“I started talking to leadership of the Karuk Tribe and the Yurok Tribe about a campaign that would pressure the company that owns the dams to give them up for removal. And so I ended up moving [to Humboldt County] and starting what we call the Bring The Salmon Home Campaign,” said Tucker.

In 2004, Tucker and about 30 other activists traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to protest against Scottish Power, then the multinational parent company of PacifiCorp. Eventually, Scottish Power ended up selling PacifiCorp to another company, Berkshire Energy. After it was sold, a majority of the demonstrations were then held at Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders’ meetings in Omaha, Nebraska and at PacifiCorp’s corporate offices in Sacramento and Portland.

Deconstruction of the Copco 2 dam has already started and removal is expected to wrap up by September. The removal of the other three dams is anticipated to reach completion as early as late 2024.

“This is a milestone,” said Simondet. “This is a moment in time where we’ve come together as a basin. I wouldn’t say everybody’s in agreement that dam removal needs to take place, but there’s a strong majority who have been waiting for this day for a long, long time.”

About the author

Astreya McKnight is a 2023 JCal reporter from Humboldt County.

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