Should They Un-Dam the Klamath River?

Klamath River
Klamath River
The Klamath River watershed
The Klamath River watershed
People enjoy a rare salmon feast
People enjoy a rare salmon feast
The noble salmon
The noble salmon
It takes two . . .
It takes two . . .
Lower Butte Creek salmon
Lower Butte Creek salmon
Mt. Shasta as seen from Klamath Falls
Mt. Shasta as seen from Klamath Falls

Where Have All the Salmon Gone?

Residents of Oregon and California are enmeshed in a long-running campaign to force the corporation, PacifiCorp, to remove four dams on the lower section of the Klamath River so fish habitat can be restored throughout the Klamath River system. Since the creation of the dams, starting in 1917 and continuing for 45 years, the salmon run on the upper Klamath River has gone extinct, and the run on the lower portion of the river has declined dramatically. These four dams have no fish ladders and provide no flood control or diversions for irrigation; they only provide hydroelectric power. The names of the four dams are Iron Gate, JC Boyle and Copco 1 and 2.

In a letter written and signed by company officials in 1916, PacifiCorp promised to do whatever was necessary to help salmon navigate the Klamath River during the building of the dams, including the construction of fish ladders and screens. But this promise was never kept.

Many of the aforementioned residents are members of the area's American Indian tribes - the Karuk, Hoopa, Yurok, Klamath and others. These tribes regularly consume the area's fish for subsistence. Unfortunately, each individual can only consume about five pounds of salmon per year because of a shortage of salmon, whereas during times of plenty an individual could consume more than 300 pounds per year. In fact, many in the tribes think the very existence of two species of salmon - the Coho and the spring run Chinook - is at stake. The Klamath River Coho salmon is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Other species of fish, including the green sturgeon and Pacific lamprey, have become increasingly rare. The chants for such people at rallies has been "Un-dam the Klamath and bring the salmon home!" and "No salmon, no future!" and "Salmon need water not politics!"

Salmon fishermen along the California coast are also concerned about the declining number of salmon in recent years. In pre-dam years the number of returning spawning salmon was over 800,000 per year, but in 2007 there were only 30,000. Due to the decreased salmon run, commercial salmon fishing was banned along the California-Oregon coast in 2006, and restrictions in fishing have been in place since 1980. In consequence, many fishermen in the area have gone out of business or soon will.

Residents have also blamed the four dams for creating a buildup of toxic algae in the reservoirs adjacent to the dams. Experts say that the algal growths can proliferate in reservoirs because the water is warmer than in streams and rivers and because reservoirs trap run-off nutrients that promote growths of algae. As a consequence, PacifiCorp has posted health advisories in many places along the Klamath River. One study showed the algal toxicity at 4,000 times what the World Health Organization considers a health risk for humans.

In May 2007, a coalition of tribal members, riverfront business owners, fishermen and Klamath Riverkeeper (a grassroots advocacy group) sued PacifiCorp for creating a public and private nuisance by operating the Irongate and Copco dams. This federal lawsuit seeks damages from toxic discharges related to the operations of the dams and reservoirs. And in December 2007, a coalition organized by Klamath Riverkeeper, again sued PacifiCorp for creating toxic waste - the algal growths - and not disposing of it properly. Both suits are ongoing.

PacifiCorp is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the chief shareholder of which is billionaire Warren Buffett. Some members of the aforementioned tribes have contacted Buffett regarding the dam controversy and Buffett refused to get involved, leaving the decision-making to PacifiCorp.

PacifiCorp claims that removing the dams would cost perhaps half a billion dollars and also negate the advantages of having dams, namely flood control, irrigation, and power generation. The dams provide 160 megawatts of electricity, enough to meet the electricity needs of about 70,000 homes. Critics think this hydroelectric power could be replaced with other forms of power generation such as wind, geothermal, biomass or photovoltaic.

Farmers and ranchers in the Klamath River Basin have concerns as well. If the dams are removed, will their needs for power, flood control and irrigation be met? In recent years farmers and ranchers in the area have complained about not receiving the amount of water the federal government has allocated them. In 2001 irrigation levels were so low that many farmers in the area needed federal financial assistance to keep from going out of business. And in September 2002, low water levels on the Klamath River were blamed for a huge fish kill numbering at least 30,000 fish, one of the largest fish die-offs in U.S. history.

Irongate dam
Irongate dam

Can Dams Be Removed?

According to the Department of Water Resources, as of March 2008, at least 469 dams have been removed nationwide for reasons such as fish passage, safety, erosion control, and habitat restoration. In California, at least 77 dams have been removed since 1922 (documentation does not exist for all removals). Since 1992, five dams on the mid-section of Butte Creek in northern California have been removed to enhance fish passage and habitat.

In a situation similar to that involving PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric (PGE) removed the 47-foot-high Marmot dam on the Sandy River in 2007, the tallest dam removed in Oregon. PGE thought it would be cheaper to dismantle the dam than pay for costly retrofits for fish ladders and screens, per current re-licensing standards set by the federal government (the dam generated electrical power for 12,000 homes.)

Regarding another dam removal scenario, in September 2011 demolition began on the Glines Canyon Dam on the upper Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. At 210 feet, the dam will be the tallest one ever removed in the United States. The Native American Klallam people in the area will be happy to see the salmon run on the Elwha River return to pre-dam conditions. Removal is scheduled to take about three years.

It certainly wouldn't be an unprecedented act for a corporation such as PacifiCorp to remove dams on a river. Even though the estimated cost would be hundreds of millions of dollars, it might cost PacifiCorp more money to retrofit the dams with fish ladders and screens. As is often the case, dollars and cents may dictate what happens in this issue.

Speaking of such antagonism between PacifiCorp and Un-Dam the Klamath River advocates, Toby Freeman of Pacific Power, the company that would be responsible for removing the dams, said, “In the long run, I’m looking forward to a resolution that fully addresses the river’s health while providing the best outcome for our customers. In the short run,” he added, “I’ll be happy if no one gets shot.”

At any rate, most people seem to agree that removing the four dams would help restore the Klamath River's fish industry, an accomplishment which would benefit many thousands of people and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in income. Only time will tell who wins this epic battle between Klamath River residents and corporate interests. (Per discussions in 2012, if dam removal began, it probably would not happen until 2020.)

However, removing the dams would not be a silver bullet for the salmon industry in the Klamath River watershed. Much work remains to be done on other rivers and creeks in the region.

Moreover, the American West has been drying out since the 1940s. Perhaps because of cyclic drought and/or global warming, there simply isn’t as much water to go around. Population in this area has also increased dramatically. So this battle will almost certainly be fought elsewhere.

Please note that the December 2008 issue of National Geographic features an article on this issue.

Also, per an article regarding a so-called historic water agreement signed in 2014, the four aforementioned dams will be removed as part of the agreement, but whether this actually happens is anybody’s guess. Please click on this link to an article summarizing the agreement and its possible ramifications:

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Comments 4 comments

omdelhi profile image

omdelhi 8 years ago from New Delhi

very informative indeed.

Felice Pace 8 years ago

Unfortunately, there is an attempt underway to link a deal with pacifiCorp to take out the four Klamath dams with a separate proposal that Hoopa Tribal Chairman Lyle Marshal has called "An Old West water deal". That deal would guarantee water, privide cheap power and give other subsidies to one group of Klamath River Basin irrigators at the expense of other Klamath River Basin irrigators. But the water deal would not provide guaranteed water for salmon or - according to independent scientists - lead to the recovery of Klamath River Salmon.

Worst of all, the controversial water deal - chock full of subsidies at taxpayer expense - hgas already delayed for two years and threatens to bring down a dam decommisisoning deal.

Decommisisoning the dams may be the single most important actiuon we can take to help restore the Klamath River. But it is not a silver bullet. It would not be good to win the dam removal battle and loose the larger struggle - to restore the Klamath River and Klamath Salmon - by tying dam decommissioning to a Water Deal that is bad for salmon, unfair and unequitable to Klamath River Basin communities.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 8 years ago from California Author

Thanks very much for your information, Felice. Only concerned individuals will resolve this issue so it benefits the most.

Kosmo profile image

Kosmo 2 years ago from California Author

Thanks for the comment, Hailey Smith. Action big or small, I hope they one day un-dam the Klamath River. Later!

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