Another Hurdle Cleared, Klamath Dams Closer to Coming Down

Advocates hope to have the dams out by 2024

By Joe Purtell

January 14, 2021


Photo courtesy of Michael Wier

After years of negotiations and agreements, roadblocks, renegotiations, and new agreements, dam removal on the Klamath River is closer than ever to becoming a reality. With almost all the bureaucratic hurdles overcome, four of the six dams on the Klamath are slated to be removed by 2024, restoring fish access to the entire river.

If carried out as planned, it will be the largest dam removal project in the history of the United States, opening up 400 river-miles of habitat to salmon, trout, and eels, for the first time in decades. The Yurok Tribe and Klamath River Renewal Corporation hope it will also mean a return to a healthy river, one without toxic algal blooms each summer and fall and a restored salmon run that can again support the tribe. After the most recent agreement in November, which grants additional funding for dam removal and irons out a legal risk technicality for the power company PacifiCorp, the Yurok and KRRC are confident that this future is possible.  

Yurok vice chairman Frankie Myers says the tribe has been clear about the importance of salmon and the river to their lives since they began negotiating with the federal government over reservations in the 1850s. Still, when the dams were built, between 1908 and 1964, the tribe was not consulted. Myers says river health deteriorated dramatically once the last dam was constructed.

“If we look back in our oral history, we started seeing a decline in the salmon runs right around the same time,” Myers said. “Before the dams went up, we did have large commercial fisheries around the Klamath, but we didn’t start to see a sharp decline in returning runs until 1964 when Iron Gate came in.”

Blocked from the upper half of the Klamath River, fish that still spawn in the lower river swim through toxic water. The dams interrupt the flow of the river, causing warm pools to form. Those pools are breeding grounds for toxic algae, which has become commonplace on the Klamath. Myers says that a disease rate of 90 percent among juvenile salmon returning to the ocean is not unheard of.

The disruption of the salmon run changed life on the reservation. As fish stocks declined, the economy of the reservation, which had been supported by the commercial sale of salmon, faltered as well. With less cash in people's pockets, there were fewer fish in the river to fall back on.

“It's a stark reality that the median income for the reservation is $11,000, so the harvest of salmon has real-world effects for people. We still depend on it for subsistence to provide protein for our families,” Myers said. 

Myers says the lack of healthy protein has led to an increase in diabetes and heart disease, which has in turn strained the health-care system. There have been psychological effects as well. Each year, around the end of August, the toxic algae makes the river unsafe for humans. On a reservation that falls almost entirely along the banks of the Klamath, children cannot swim in the river.

When the dams came up for relicensing in the early 2000s, Myers was part of a group of tribal members, activists, and scientists that decided that dam removal was the only way to restore health to the Klamath River. At first, Myers says that the idea seemed far-fetched, and raised eyebrows on the reservation, where people wondered if the dam-removal fight was the best use of the tribe’s energy. Almost 20 years later, nearly everyone has come around—many people had thought the dams helped with flood prevention and irrigation, but those assumptions have been disproven. Even PacifiCorp now supports dam removal. The dams generate a negligible amount of power, and it will be cheaper to take them out than to update them to modern standards.

Jim Root, president of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, joined the effort to decommission the dams soon after it began. A farmer in the upper basin, Root says most people on the river have more to gain from a healthy salmon run and river ecosystem than from the small amount of power generated by the dams.  

“The parties that are interested in dam removal are the parties that are interested in fish prosperity,” Root said. 

Commercial fisherman and conservationists share the Yurok’s belief that the salmon and river cannot prosper while the dams stand.

The Yurok and KRRC already had a deal worked out with PacifiCorp, but in July the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decided to keep PacifiCorp on as a co-license holder rather than completely transfer liability to the KRRC. This brought the parties back to the negotiating table, as PacifiCorps’s desire to avoid any financial risk had been a sticking point in earlier rounds of bargaining. After almost daily negotiations between July and November, the parties came to a new agreement. PacifiCorp will remain a license holder until FERC issues a formal order to surrender the license, at which point the KRRC, California, and Oregon will take on the license in equal parts. The change will give the KRRC and the states a chance to look over FERC’s new environmental orders before finalizing the agreement.  

If this all sounds like a bureaucratic headache, that’s because it is. After decades of work on dam removal, Root says he has become accustomed to the bureaucracy. “I’m a farmer. Coming to understand all of this has been getting a college degree.” 

According to Myers and Root, people are feeling optimistic about the new agreement. There is more to do before the four dams come down in 2024, but Root says the remaining hurdles are the standard ones, like National Environmental Policy Act compliance, which could order the KRRC to mitigate potential threats to other species in the area. Root says the KRRC plans to start building the infrastructure that neighboring towns will need to adapt to the free-flowing river in 2022, and begin removing the dams in March of 2023, allowing the river to flow freely by the beginning of 2024. The work would not end with deconstruction. Root says the larger part of the KRRC’s budget, funded by California, Oregon, and PacifiCorp in equal parts, goes to habitat restoration. Myers says he is confident the dams will come down with this new agreement in place.

“I’m often asked, because there have been several agreements throughout this process, why is this one special?” Myers said. “We now have PacifiCorp and Berkshire Hathaway fully committed to dam removal. We’ve never had that before.”

Once the dams are removed, Myers expects to see benefits to salmon almost immediately. The warm pools of water will dissipate, which would mean juvenile salmon wouldn’t have to swim through toxic algae on their way to the sea. 

“The benefits to salmon are almost instantaneous. The benefits to the run, that’s obviously going to take a little bit longer,” Myers said. “We expect to see population increases in the third to fourth cycle, so about six to eight years.” 

In other rivers where dams have been removed, the salmon have bounced back. The Elwha River in Washington State had been disrupted by dams without fish passage since the early 1900s. Sam Brenkman, fisheries biologist at Olympic National Park, estimates the river had suffered a 95 percent reduction in salmon in the 100 years it was dammed. Brenkman says fish began returning to the upper river within months of dam removals, which happened in 2012 and 2014. The sediment that had previously been blocked behind the dams has rebuilt 100 acres of delta. While salmon runs have increased from a low point of 3,000 fish to almost 8,000 in 2019, Brenkman says there are more benefits than the numbers show.

“We’ve reconnected the ocean ecosystem and the river ecosystem, so fish have access to the headwaters of the river, to the cold-water habitats of the upper river, to the ocean where there’s more food supply,” Brenkman said. “We’re starting to see fish that are larger in size than we did before dam removal.”

Myers hopes the Klamath can also return to a healthier state, and bring the people along the river with it.

“There's a lot of connection between the health of the river and the health of the people,” Myers said. With the dams removed, he hopes the healing process can begin for everyone.