The Klamath River dams: reweaving a river

Klamath River in late summer light. Photo by Bob Wick, U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The act of removing the Klamath River dams and restoring that energy flow from the upper basin to the lower basin is an act of our cultural identity. From a Tribal perspective, we are helping to restore that balance, and in a small way, we’re helping to fix the world.
~ Barry McCovey Jr. ~

I’ve never met a map I didn’t like. I love the magic of finding my way on our stunning and complicated planet, ever intrigued by the ways the world meshes itself together. But, with their rigid borders and limited graphic language, maps can do a disservice to our perceptions. This is especially true of rivers. On paper, they are thin blue lines, as narrow at the headwaters as they are at the mouth.

Maps foster thinking of flowing water as restricted to boundaries, set between shores, lying on the ground. We claim the land edging those lines as ours. We make it green on a map or insert the grid of a city. When rivers flood those boundaries, when they demand more ground, when they want to live the fullness of being a river, we get upset. We try to hold them back, make better use of them, control them, force them to go in directions we choose. We put physical boundaries around them. Or in them.

A 1918 photo of one of the Klamath River dams, Copco 1.
The Copco 1 dam became operational in 1918. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

My grandfather helped erect two of those boundaries. He was an engineer for the California Oregon Power Company as they built the first two Klamath River dams in far Northern California. I hardly knew that grandfather, but these dams were his significant accomplishment in family lore. Two generations later, they are, to my delight, being removed. There are two more that my grandfather was not involved with and they, too, are coming down. Once the 38-mile stretch between the dams is open by the fall of 2024, 400 miles of Klamath River salmon habitat will run free for the first time in over 100 years.

A graphic of the Klamath River watershed showing the stretch where four Klamath River dams will be removed.
The Klamath River watershed with the area of dam removal highlighted. Two dams higher up the river have fish ladders allowing spawning salmon to pass. Image courtesy of Klamath River Renewal Project.

Last summer I went to the Klamath River hoping to see the first dam coming down. The harassed guard at the entrance to the town did his best to be polite as he listened to me while clearing truck after truck to enter the deconstruction site. But there was no going in for me. “Thank your grandfather,” he said rather desperately — to someone who could be his grandmother — as he oversaw my backing out.

He would not have said that had he been a member of the Karuk or Yurok Tribes who have been working for decades to remove the dams. I can’t imagine that they would ever, even in awkward politeness, have thanked my grandfather. He helped engineer one of their greatest losses. Not just the flowing water of the Klamath and the salmon their cultures prize, but the vast, interconnected life of a river.

Rivers have lives. House lives. Create worlds. Hold meaning. The Amazon makes its own weather. The Ganges is a goddess. The Colorado carved the southwest. The Nile, the Euphrates, and the Yellow Rivers all birthed civilizations. The Mississippi, the Congo, and the Yukon are legends.

Klamath River. Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Klamath River. Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

I saw a map recently that divided North America not into states and provinces, but into kingdoms based on the dominant species in that area. I spent most of my life in the northeast Maple Kingdom and now live in the Redwood Kingdom. Just north of me begins the Salmon Kingdom, which stretches from Northern California to Alaska. The Klamath River belongs to, helps create, and fosters the physical and spiritual life of the Salmon Kingdom.

I cannot know what it means to be descended from people whose lives, for millennia, have been interwoven with salmon. To understand the depth of this profound connection, I have to rely on the words of those who both live it and are in fear of losing it.

Salmon is not simply food, as important as its nutrients are to the people who depend on it. It is family. A gift of the Creator. A being who volunteered to steer the human race along the right path. All aspects of living among salmon — fishing, eating, protecting, sharing, ceremony, community — are integral to the ways of life of the Pacific Northwest Indigenous nations. The health of salmon and the ecosystems that support them are crucial to the physical, mental, and cultural health of communities. And, in turn, vital to the health of individuals.

A man bracing himself on the rocks above a river in British Columbia as he practices traditional net fishing for salmon. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Traditional net fishing for salmon in British Columbia.

The loss of salmon is a crisis. An entire way of being is threatened. Such loss follows the trail of broken treaties and other abuses that have deprived the Pacific Northwest nations of their rights to land and traditional fishing areas. It comes at the cost of the health of rivers, forests, and wetlands. Obliviousness and greed have operated all down the line: governments, regulators, settlers, commercial fishing operations.

People with purportedly good intentions, like my grandfather, shared the engineering mindset that sees rivers as resources to be channeled. Who likely agreed that the Native Americans living on that land were in the way of progress. The people who had thrived and seen that the rivers and salmon thrived for at least 10,000 years were pushed aside, along with their vast, integrated knowledge.

The Klamath Basin was once the third most productive salmon habitat on the Pacific Coast. In the years since the dams went in, the population of chinook salmon has dwindled to a tiny fraction of its earlier numbers. Klamath coho salmon is nearing extinction. The dams not only blocked free passage, they created shallow reservoirs that grew too warm, collected too much runoff from local ranches and farms. They suffered toxic algae blooms and fostered deadly parasites. Vital physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance for the Native population was decimated.

Advocating for the removal of the Klamath River dams by the Upper Klamath Basin Tribes. Photo by Patrick McCully.
Photo by Patrick McCully via Creative Commons 2.0

The Karuk and Yurok Tribes, along with their neighbors, have been working on dam removal since the 1990s. But it was a devastating fish kill in 2002 that galvanized the effort and drew nationwide attention to the campaign. In a few days in that hot summer, 38,000 fish died in the warm, stagnant water.

Still, there were 20 more years of advocacy, progress, and backtracking by multiple conservation groups, several Klamath area tribes, federal and state agencies, the U.S. Congress, and the states of California and Oregon. Finally, the owner, PacifiCorp, needing to renew licensing for the dams, faced the expense of installing fish ladders, which were not required when the dams went up. Finding that the cost of the ladders was more than the cost of removing the dams, the company transferred its licenses to the states of California and Oregon. That opened the way for final approval in 2022.

As the largest dam removal in U.S. history and the largest salmon restoration project in the world, the task is enormous. Last summer the Copco 2 dam, the smallest, came down. Workers then blasted holes through Copco 1 and the upstream J.C. Boyle dam so the reservoirs behind the dams could drain this winter. A bypass tunnel at the Iron Gate dam, the last in line, was reinforced to handle not just the flow of water but up to 7 million cubic yards of sediment that has settled in the reservoirs. Choosing winter allows taking advantage of higher rainfall and runoff to move it all along.

By summer, the river will be returning to its ancestral channel. It will then be possible to deconstruct the remaining three dams.

Feathery, white yampah (Perideridia species) is one of the native plants that will be seeded after the Klamath River dams are removed. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Yampah (Perideridia species) is one of the native plants to be seeded. This picture was taken near the Iron Gate dam. In the carrot family, the roots are edible and nutritious and were a staple food for western Native peoples.

That’s just the beginning of the restoration project. While the 2,200 acres of revealed reservoir land are still soaked from 100 years underwater, 300,000 tree and shrub saplings will be planted. Seventeen billion seeds have been collected and grown from local native plants for the past five years. Crews have also spent those years working to remove non-native, invasive plants to create less competition for the new seeds. Planting will continue for the next seven years.

Wetlands, crucial for filtering runoff and as habitat for newly hatched salmon, will need to be reestablished. Tributaries that have been diked and impeded will need to be freed to keep cold, fresh water flowing. A new fish hatchery is under construction as part of the plan to repopulate the river with salmon. Over a thousand tree trunks along with woody debris and rocks will be strategically placed  — by helicopter — to provide the shady, protected habitat that salmon need.

Refecting the blue sky and clouds, the reservoir held back by the Iron Gate Dam, one of the four Klamath River Dams to be removed. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
Water held by the Iron Gate dam, the last in line. The top of the dam is the horizontal brown line above the center of the picture.

Not everyone is happy. Some are actively hostile and still threatening legal action. Farmers and ranchers are concerned about the fragility of the water supply. Residents living next to the reservoirs worry about falling property values for what will no longer be lakefront property. Losing familiar recreational opportunities weighs against the idea that a free-flowing river will offer new ones.

Some fear a heightened risk of wildfires that might more easily jump a river than a wide lake. And, as ever, people are leery of change. When I was there last June, the one dam I could easily take pictures of was the Iron Gate. No one going in or out said a word to me. Finally, one friendly security guard, only there for the week to give another guard a vacation, told me they were instructed not to talk to anyone.

If all goes well, the mature salmon starting upriver to spawn in the fall of 2024 will be able to swim for hundreds of miles in a freely flowing river habitat for the first time in more than a century. Experience with past dam removals, particularly the 2011 and 2014 removal of two Elwha River dams in Washington, offers hope for the river’s ability to heal itself.

A close-up profile of a bald eagle with dark brown feathers, a white head, and a yellow beak. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

There, the salmon population increased immediately, as did the number of mammals and birds that came to feast on them. The entire ecosystem began to reweave itself. We think we can control rivers, bend them to our will and needs. But as soon as we give up that hubris and remove our rickety constructs, we discover life itself.

This is what lines on a map can’t tell us. Rivers are fish, amphibians, and insects. They are eagles and ospreys. The snow from high mountains meeting the salt of the sea. They are clouds rising and falling. The land flanking their shores. The plants that grow there, fed by the nutrients of decaying fish dropped by bears and wolves; DNA of salmon blending with the DNA of pine trees. They are the ceremonies performed on their banks. The people casting lines and nets for fish. There is no line of demarcation between the waters and the beings that create rivers. Their boundaries are as liquid as their depths. To be a river is to be interwoven with everything.

A bear fishing in a river for salmon in southern Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford.
A bear fishing for salmon in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Top photo of the Klamath River by Bob Wick, U.S. Bureau of Land Management via Wikimedia Commons.


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6 thoughts on “The Klamath River dams: reweaving a river”

  1. That’s really wonderful news for our earth. Here in Africa, we need people like yourself and groups that recognize the woes of dams. Any news of such?

    1. Thank you! It is wonderful news. I know many groups are working in Africa but don’t know of any particular groups that are working on rivers. If I can find some information I will email you.

  2. Hi Betsy,
    This latest blog about the Klamath River dam is excellent, captures all we’ve learned about this project so succinctly. We have been big proponents from early on, and I’ve just forwarded this post forward to our friends at Cal Trout, one of the biggest fish and river conservation groups in the state who supported this dam removal project from beginning. A big win.

    1. Thank you, Sue. I love the whole story, though not the part where it took so long. But it’s happening and it’s amazing. I’m looking forward to going back when the river is flowing freely.

  3. Betsey, What a remarkable, inspiring and inspired blog! Your story, one of restoration, witnessing and naming the exquisitely entangled threads of River-life… with your personal, ancestral story… I am in awe! Thank you, from the basin of my flowing heart-river, Andrea

    1. Thank you, Andrea. It’s such a compelling story, with and without my ancestral participation. You bless us with quite a flowing heart-river.

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