Restoring the Klamath: What we're learning from the largest dam removal project in history

Bruce Shoemaker
Monday, May 11, 2020

Photo above from Komo News. Caption and credit: FILE - In the May 30, 2013, file photo, Jene McCovey, an elder with the Yurok Tribe, speaks to a group of about 50 people, mostly from the Klamath River Tribes, about the push to restore a fishery on the Klamath River, and remove four dams. (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Benjamin Brink, File)

After decades of controversy and campaigning by Indigenous and environmental groups, the largest dam removal project to date world-wide is moving forward in far-northern California and southern Oregon of the United States. Four large hydropower dams on the Klamath River are to be removed, restoring hundreds of miles of habitat for salmon and other species which have been severely affected by the dams. These fish have historically been the basis of livelihoods, and an essential part of the culture, for several local Native American tribes. With funding from the State of California and the utility that currently owns the dams, Pacific Power, the dams are to be transferred to a new entity, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), which will be responsible for removal and related restoration. Planning and studies for this immense undertaking are ongoing. Physical removal and related restoration work are to begin in early 2022.

Background on the Klamath River and Dams

The Klamath River was historically the fourth-most important river for salmon in the western US. Four Indigenous groups – the Hoopa, Yurok, Karuk and Klamath Tribes – live along the river and have close livelihood and cultural links to the river and its fishery. One of the four dams, Copco 1, dates from 1918, and first cut off the upper Klamath basin, blocking migratory access to one third of the watershed, including some of the highest quality habitat for the imperiled Spring Chinook salmon run.

The nearby Copco 2 was built seven years later. A second round of dam building, in 1958-1962, resulted in two more large dams, J.C. Boyle and Irongate, above and below the first two. Other dams have cut off additional salmon spawning grounds in the tributary Shasta and Trinity Rivers. Impacts on salmon runs were immediate and have only worsened over time. The declining salmon runs, including of endangered Coho Salmon, as well as impaired water quality (the reservoirs produce artificially warm water and toxic blue-green algae) have led to severe conflicts between the tribes, upstream irrigators and regulatory agencies over the allocation of Klamath water. By the early 2000s these conflicts had come to a head--with irrigators cut off from water to provide minimum flows for salmon one year and then reductions in in-stream flows which resulted in enormous salmon die-offs the next.

The story of how this dire situation has now been transformed to the point at which a broad agreement has been reached resulting in all four dams being on the verge of removal, is fascinating and inspiring and could well have relevance for dam campaigners internationally.

Current status of dam removal initiative

As a result of more than twenty years of struggle and perseverance, the power company, the States of California and Oregon, the tribes and many other stakeholders are now all in agreement on Klamath dam removal. The budget (up to $450 million) is in place and preliminary studies and contracting are underway. However, there are still a couple of steps that must be taken in order for dam removal and Klamath restoration to proceed as planned. At least one of these involves federal (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC) approval to transfer the ownership of the dams from Pacific Power to KRRC. A Department of Interior official has stated that in normal circumstances this shouldn’t be a big issue and, in fact, FERC staff have in the past said they view the transfer of ownership as a business decision that they are not inclined to question.

However, in the current US national political environment, there are concerns about this. Both within the basin and without, there are elements strongly opposed to dam removal on ideological, non-scientific grounds. This opposition ignores, however, the fact that Klamath dam removal will have net benefits for upstream irrigators. The dams to be removed do not assist with irrigation. Their removal, by improving water quality and flows for fish in the Klamath, will reduce regulatory burdens and help ensure a more reliable flow of water for irrigators. 

Beyond FERC, final State of California and federal environmental approvals of KRRC’s dam removal plans must be made. Nobody seems to have a good idea how long this all will take and some aspects of all of this are potentially vulnerable to lawsuits which could delay the process. In sum, while the dam removal is moving forward, and all but some hardcore ideologues believe it will happen, the process still faces some uncertainties which could result in delays to the initiation of physical dam removal. Now there is the additional uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic which could lead to further delays in the project time frame. Dam removal advocates remain hopeful, however, that these challenges can be overcome without any major disruption to the planned Klamath dam removal and river restoration plan.

Documenting Lessons Learned

Over the coming months, we will conduct interviews with key actors to understand the success of the Klamath River restoration campaign. In particular we will look to publish information that can be used as educational and inspiring material for international dam campaigners as well as policymakers. The overarching theme is one of unintended consequences—and a past failure to appreciate the lives, cultures and livelihoods of those who depend on the river. And then, how the move towards dam removal was accomplished. Specific focus areas will include:

Coalition-building – How local tribes and environmental groups built bridges, not only with statewide and national-level advocacy organizations, but also with farmers (upstream irrigators), regulatory agencies, commercial salmon fishermen,the media and, eventually, the dam owner itself, to build a broad consensus for dam removal.

Indigenous Peoples leadership – Throughout the long campaign, the tribal people most affected by the Klamath dams have been at the front and center of this campaign. These groups are also playing a key role in river restoration and the revival of cultural traditions concerning the importance of the Klamath and its fishery to the tribes.

Effective and persistent strategic campaign work – The Klamath campaign has used a wide variety of strategies in advocating for dam removal. This has included international protests in Scotland, which pressured a Scottish pension fund into disinvesting from Pacific Power and later protests at the headquarters of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholder meeting, after that company bought Pacific Power. The campaign also put pressure on State agencies to enforce California’s water quality laws, which the Klamath dams have been violating, ran media campaigns and engaged in various public debates and forums. 

Bruce Shoemaker is a researcher living in northern California on a tributary of the Klamath River. He has researched river-based livelihoods and the impacts of hydropower dams in the Mekong basin of Southeast Asia, often in cooperation with International Rivers, for more than two decades. He is now assisting International Rivers in engaging in the Klamath dam removal initiative and will be writing occasional articles as this process continues to unfold.