Monday, October 16, 2023

Unleashing the river: The Klamath dam removal project

The Klamath River, flowing through California and Oregon, is not just a waterway but a lifeline for people and wildlife. For decades, the river has faced numerous challenges, including water diversions, pollution, and four hydroelectric dams that have significantly altered its natural flow. Now, however, a remarkable endeavor is underway to restore the Klamath River to its former glory: The Klamath dam removal project is the largest dam removal in the world. You can read prior posts about the Klamath dams here and here.  

The Klamath River holds deep cultural significance for indigenous tribes, particularly the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa Valley tribes. These tribes have relied on the Klamath for thousands of years to provide salmon, steelhead, and suckers. However, the river’s ecosystem began to deteriorate in the 20th century with the construction of four hydroelectric dams: Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2, and J.C. Boyle. The four dams were built for power generation and disrupted fish migration, sediment transport, and nutrient cycling. Annelia Hillman, a traditional food coordinator for the Yurok tribe, commented,

This river is our lifeline. It’s the foundation to our people, for our culture.

In 2001, two cases brought national attention to issues between farmers who relied on the dam’s water for irrigation and the Coho salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act: Kandra v. United States and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In these cases, locals and agencies fought over who deserved water during a historically dry year. The Bush administration ultimately sided with the irrigators, diverting water to farmers during the drought year. These water diversions drained critical river habitats, culminating in salmon populations plummeting during the 2002 Fish Kill. Outrage over the 34,000 dead salmon supercharged the campaign to remove the dams (See also Yurok Tribe v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Baley v. United States).  

Iron Gate Dam (Photo: Katie Eng, September 29, 2023)

Last month, I had the privilege of hearing from the CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, Mark Bransom. Bransom spoke about FERC’s decision to decommission and acknowledge the social and cultural impacts of the dams  for the first time. FERC also banned the Klamath’s hydroelectric license. For more about FERC’s approval of the four dams, see this blog post

Today, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation is working to blast holes through the base of the dams, dredging out the accumulated sediment and flushing the sediment and accumulated algae (muck) into the ocean. When I visited the dam last month, Bransom commented, 

The river needs to go through a little more pain before it heals again.

Meanwhile, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation is working closely with indigenous tribes to cultivate seeds from over 90 species of native vegetation. They hope to plant over 19 billion seeds over 8,000 acres. With such aggressive efforts, the Renewal Corporation anticipates a 24-month timeline for the project to be complete, with returning adult salmon inhabiting the river by next October. 

It would be surprising, of course, if a project of this size had zero opposition. In fact, Bransom says the Renewal Corporation has struggled with balancing the interests of environmentalists and local property owners —he calls them the “way of life” people versus the “quality of life” people. 

Driving along the roads of rural Hornbrook, California, where Iron Gate Dam lives, it is typical to see signs protesting the dam’s removal. Bransom says locals are worried about the noise, the future lack of a lake for recreational activities, and the impacts on property values. He spoke about the difficulties in telling senior locals, whose retirement money is wrapped up in their waterfront property, that the removal will affect their estates for the next decade. Bransom believes that ten to fifteen years from now, the Klamath River’s restored wildlife and salmon populations will positively impact property values and the lives of those that’s live beside it.

J.C. Boyle Dam (Photo: Katie Eng, September 30, 2023)

The possibility of salmon returning to the Upper Klamath raises questions about whether the dam removal project could inspire other changes in Oregon and California. One such place a dam removal project may be warranted is the Snake River, where tribes and farmers suffer from water shortages and related environmental issues. Under the direction of his legal team, Bransom was unable to comment on whether he thinks similar efforts would be successful in California. However, Bransom has hope that the lessons learned from the Klamath dam removal project will be used for years and decades to come—including in other locales facing similar quandaries.

1 comment:

Caitlin Durcan said...

This was super interesting! I had not heard about the Klamath Dam before and was unaware that this project existed. I am generally excited about this project and think it is a step in the right direction. I appreciate that you mentioned the people who are against the project and the consequences this might have on the retirement community. It is rare that large endeavors to help the environment or native groups do not face criticism or backlash. Overall, I found this very informative and will continue to read up about the Klamath Dam as the project progresses.