Why a Free-Flowing Klamath River Matters

Here’s how the largest dam removal in U.S. history, restoring flows to the lower Klamath River, will impact wildlife, residents and visitors to this vast watershed that spans southern Oregon and Northern California.

The Klamath River, with its headwaters in southern Oregon, and its estuary on the Yurok Reservation in Northern California, has been dammed for nearly a century. More than 100 years ago, the river ran from Upper Klamath Lake in the Oregon Cascades, southwest across the Oregon-California border, to where it reaches the Pacific Ocean at Requa, Calif., on Yurok land. A magnificent maze of marshes, lakes and streams feed the river, and give life to a rich ecosystem of fish, birds, and the humans who depend on the waterway for food—not to mention recreation, business and irrigation.

The full Klamath watershed is the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, covering more than 14,500 square miles. Historically, the Klamath was the third-largest salmon-producing river in the western U.S., but five dams, built between 1918 and 1962, thwarted salmon and steelhead from reaching their spawning grounds and led to dwindling fish runs. The obstruction of the lower Klamath river flow, in addition to drought and warmer water temperatures, reduced the quality of water and other aquatic life.

Subsequently, local Native American tribes and conservation groups have rallied for years to undam the Klamath. After decades of effort (spearheaded by environmental groups like American Rivers as well as the Klamath, Yurok, Shasta, Karuk and Hoopa tribes), the Federal Government has finally signaled support for the removal of four of the massive dams. Under the approved plan, the 25-foot-high Copco No. 2 dam will be removed in the summer of 2023. The remaining three, Oregon’s 68-foot J.C. Boyle, and California’s 126-foot Copco No. 1 and 173-foot Iron Gate dams, are scheduled for removal in 2024. 

PacifiCorp, owned by investor Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway holding company, operates the dams on federal land—hence the need for federal involvement. First, the fed’s Final Environmental Impact Statement determined that removal of the four dams was “in the public interest,” and necessary to repair environmental and cultural damage. Then, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved a Hydropower License Surrender in November 2022, which recommended the removal project. Now, FERC commissioners have agreed to transfer the license from PacifiCorp to the states of California and Oregon and the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) as co-licensees to carry out demolition, pending final sign-off. If all goes according to plan, deconstruction will start in 2023 and be completed in 2024. Finally, PacifiCorp is transferring the management of the two remaining dams on the upper Klamath to the BLM. Those dams, the Keno and Link, will continue to operate with the addition of new fish ladders to allow salmon upstream salmon migration. 

Though nearly 2,000 dams have been removed in the U.S. in the past quarter-century, this demolition project will be the biggest to date. Here are five reasons why the largest dam removal in U.S. history is such a big deal.

Win for the tribes

Originally built to provide hydroelectric power, the four dams are now nearly obsolete; updating and retrofitting them with salmon ladders would cost tens of millions of dollars. The Klamath basin tribes have long advocated for the removal of the dams for both food security (traditionally, the salmon harvested from the Klamath made up the majority of the tribes’ food source) and the reclamation of a river due to its strong cultural and ceremonial significance

Ecological impact

The hope is the Klamath River dam demolition will not only increase the population of migratory salmon but will ignite actions to restore habitat for fish, wildlife and birds, plus water quality—and will help resolve some long-standing water rights issues. Coho and Chinook salmon, coastal cutthroat trout, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white and green sturgeon all rely on the Klamath. An estimated 75 percent of birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway alight in the upper basin. There are several national wildlife refuges in the region; they host the largest flock of bald eagles in the lower 48 states during winter months.

New energy opportunities

Estimates are that the project will cost about $500 million dollars (costs for upkeep and bringing the dams up to current environmental laws are estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars as well). Also, because the electricity generated by the dams is no longer significant relative to other PacifiCorp sources, the approximately 70,000 homes that received electricity from the dams will receive service from PacifiCorp’s more efficient and environmentally sustainable sources.

Recreational boost

Although the river has been an important economic asset to the area (beyond hydropower, also feeding the region’s ranching, commercial fishing and agricultural industries), its recreational benefits can’t be overstated. The Klamath River flows 263 miles from its source, much of which has been awarded wild, scenic or recreational classification. It’s the longest protected river in California (and second in length to the Sacramento River). And there’s one particular feather in its cap: recreational designation within the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System, which acknowledges the Klamath as a vital, year-round outdoor resource for hiking, fishing, and boating. Current highlights include: paddling the nearly 12-mile stretch of up to Class IV+ whitewater from the John Boyle Powerhouse in Oregon to Copco Lake, just past the California border; fishing the river’s unique species of rainbow trout year-round, or world-class salmon and steelhead runs in the spring and fall; or, simply camping in one of the dozens of campsites that dot the river from Upper Klamath Lake down past the California border.

The removal of the dams promises to increase fish population and return the lower half of the river to a natural state. This is exciting news for not only the local tribes, but for everyone who enjoys and utilizes the river, with the potential and ability to now build off these tremendous recreational assets. 

Hope for a new restoration model

Native tribes, commercial fishing companies, PacifiCorp, the federal government, California and Oregon state governments, agricultural and ranching interests as well as conservationists all came together to ensure a free-flowing, healthier Klamath River Basin. Hopefully, this coalition of government, business, and nonprofit groups will create a model (and set precedent) for future river reclamation and revitalization projects

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.