It's on us. Share your news here.

The world’s largest dam demolition has begun. Can the dammed Klamath River finally find salvation?

Posted on September 5, 2023

Oshun O’Rourke waded into the dark green water, splashing toward a net that her colleagues gently closed around a cluster of finger-length fish.

The Klamath River is wide and still here, making its final turn north to the coast as it winds through the Yurok reservation in Humboldt County. About 150 baby chinook salmon, on their long journey to the Pacific, were resting in cool waters that poured down from the forest.

O’Rourke’s colleagues hoisted the net into a mesh-sided bin in the shallows to sort through their catch, in search of young chinook to test for a parasite that can rot fish from the inside.

Two years ago, during a deepening drought, most salmon captured for testing during peak migration were infected with the lethal parasite. One tribal leader called it “an absolute worst-case scenario” for the Yurok, who rely on salmon for their food, culture and economy.

O’Rourke and fisheries biologist Leanne Knutson laid out 20 small dead fish on paper towels, then wrapped them in plastic to send to a lab that will check for the parasite. The rest were released back into the river, where they will swim for days to reach the ocean.

A few years from now, when these fish return as adults ready to spawn, it will be to a Klamath remade.

“These ones will return either as three or four-year-olds,” O’Rourke said, standing barefoot on the riverbank flecked with fool’s gold and crossed by an otter’s footprints. “And the dams will be gone.”

For more than a hundred years, dams have stilled the Klamath’s flows, jeopardizing the salmon and other fish, and creating ideal conditions for the parasite to spread.

But now these vestiges of an early 20th-century approach to water and power are being dismantled: The world’s largest dam removal project is now underway on the Klamath River.

By the end of 2024, four aging hydroelectric dams spanning the California-Oregon state line will be gone. One hundred thousand cubic yards of concrete, 1.3 million cubic yards of earth and 2,000 tons of steel will be hauled out of the river’s path.

Tribal members, researchers, rural residents near the dams, conservationists and the fishing industry are all anxiously waiting to see how this river, dammed for decades, will change — and with it, its fish, wildlife and human neighbors.

It’s an existential question for rivers, especially in a region where water left in nature is often deemed wasted: “Once a river is dammed, is it damned forever?” experts ask.

So many uncertainties remain as the Klamath reemerges: Will sediment from the demolition harm the river and its inhabitants? Will healthy numbers of salmon finally return? Will it flood its banks more readily? What will the riverfront look like?

Young chinook salmon are collected for lab testing on the Klamath River near Weitchpec on July 20, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

Fisheries biologists and technicians from the Yurok Tribe’s Klamath program are collecting salmon on the Klamath River. On left: Gilbert Myers, Oshun O’Rourke, Keenan O’Rourke and Leanne Knutson. In middle: Keenan O’Rourke. On right: The technicians open a probe to collect tracking data. Photos by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

For O’Rourke, 31, a Yurok tribal member, the Klamath is more than a study subject — it’s home for her and her team, and the lifeblood of their tribe, which has inhabited this region since time immemorial. From the research boat, she gestures to the stretch of river where she grew up in her ancestral village, fishing with her father.

O’Rourke is hopeful that tearing down the dams will mean her son will have salmon to fish, too. But, as a scientist, she plans to investigate, seeking evidence that the river will rebound for the next generation.

“It’s hard to say for sure,” she said, “what things will be like in the future.”

‘To fix a place and right past wrongs’

The Klamath is often described as an upside-down river. It’s born in the high deserts of eastern Oregon as a trickle, and by the time it reaches the Pacific more than 250 miles later, it swells with water drained from more than 12,000 square miles of land, spanning five national forests and seven counties across two states.

There’s a stretch of river, crossing the California-Oregon state line, where feral horses pick their way up pine-studded slopes and osprey nest on power poles.

This is where, in 1918, a power company began operating the first of its hydroelectric dams on the river to light the towns and power the farms, mines and mills of California’s far north and Oregon beyond.

This is where dam construction dispossessed the Shasta peopleblockaded salmon runs and stewed the river’s water into a warm, algal brew — drawing decades of activism from tribes and conservationists.

And this is where demolition has begun.

For more than 20 years, four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath have been at the center of a fight to restore the river.

Iron Gate Dam, one of four hydroelectric dams that will be removed on the Klamath River, on July 17, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

On left: Copco Number 1 Dam. On right: Copco Number 2 Dam. Photos by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

The dams weren’t built to store water for drinking, irrigation, or to stop floods. They generated electricity for PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, producing less than 2% of its customers’ power supply.

On one side are Native tribes in California and Oregon, conservationists and the fishing industry — all fighting to restore native salmon, steelhead and Pacific lamprey that have dwindled under the combined threats of changing ocean conditions, farming and ranching, timber harvesting, mining, overfishing and dams.

On the other side are nearby residents and their politicians, who see demolition as another way for state and federal agencies to impose their environmental wills on their rural way of life.

And in the middle is PacifiCorp. The company had planned to continue operating the dams to generate electricity after its license expired in 2006. But by 2010, facing growing protests and hundreds of millions of dollars in federally mandated updates to make them less dangerous to fish, PacifiCorp agreed to demolish them.

The Klamath River near Happy Camp on July 19, 2023. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

Deals between the company, California, Oregon, the Secretary of the Interior and others were struck, blocked in Congress, and remade until, last November, when federal energy regulators gave their final blessing to demolish the dams.

“It’s about damn time we got this done,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in December at the fish hatchery below Iron Gate dam, the most downstream of the dams slated for demolition.

California taxpayers will cover $250 million of the roughly $450-$500 million bill with funds from the Proposition 1 water bond approved by voters in 2014. Another $200 million comes from surcharges that PacifiCorp customers, mostly in Oregon, have already paid.

For California officials, the cost of demolishing a private company’s infrastructure is worth the benefit of a more free-flowing river.

“Sometimes, the need to do something so bold — to fix a place and right past wrongs — means you have to sit down and just be pragmatic on how you’re going to get a deal done,” Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told CalMatters.

Native tribes and scientists see demolition as a victory for the river’s first peoples and the fish they depend on for their food, cultures and livelihoods. Chinook populations have crashed, so much so that the 2023 fishing season was cancelled statewide. The river’s spring-run chinook are listed as threatened under California endangered species law, while coho are listed under both the state and federal laws.

Mike Polmateer, a Karuk fisheries field supervisor, at Horse Creek along the Klamath River. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

Removing the dams is expected to reopen more than 400 miles of habitat for steelhead and other threatened and iconic fish, and restore flows that can better flush away toxic algae and disease.

But residents and officials in Siskiyou County worry about the sediment that the project will unleash into the river and the consequences of losing a reservoir to refeed groundwater wells, fight fires and recreate.

Landowners mourn lakeside property that will no longer be waterfront as reservoirs vanish and the exposed land becomes the property of the state of California or a designated third party.

“It’s hard to say for sure what things will be like in the future,” said Oshun O’Rourke, a senior fisheries biologist with the Yurok Tribe who is shown near a study site along the Klamath River near Weitchpec. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

What is clear is that the Klamath won’t return to the river it once was. Designated as a wild and scenic river, the Klamath has long been the nexus of some of the West’s fiercest water wars, and removing PacifiCorp’s hydroelectric dams ends only some of the battles.

Other dams will remain upriver in Oregon, where the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation controls flows from Upper Klamath Lake — portioning out too little water to satisfy tribes, wildlife refuges, lake, river, farms and fish. The battle over water allocation will continue, as will the fights over tributaries downstream of the dams.

“The work is not done, by any means,” O’Rourke said, the Klamath River rushing beside her. “There’s still so much to do after the dams come out.”

As construction begins, ‘there is no going back’

The smallest of the four dams, the 33-foot Copco Number 2, located in Siskiyou County, is already almost gone. Water rushed past it by mid-July, and only a concrete and steel structure on the river’s bank remained visible from above.

“Quite a remarkable sight to see and feeling to feel,” said Mark Bransom, CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the nonprofit formed to oversee the removal effort. “Knowing that we’ve broken ground and allowed for the river to start that healing.”

This time last year, Bransom said, the riverbed was dry, the water diverted to generate power. Trees now crowd the canyon floor where they sprouted from a riverbed long absent its river.

By October of 2024, the river will flow freely past the other three dams as well — the J.C. Boyle dam in Oregon and the Copco Number 1 and Iron Gate dams in California’s Siskiyou County.

At this point, Bransom said, “there is no going back.”


It's on us. Share your news here.
Submit Your News Today

Join Our
Click to Subscribe