Taking down four dams in Oregon and California would be a coup for advocates of dam removal. It could also mark the moment when their movement rediscovers a more realistic goal: bringing restoration into balance with human needs.
Bob Wick/ Bureau of Land Management via Flickr
The dams’ formal name is the Lower Klamath Hydroelectric Project, but locals call them the Klamath dams -- four aging structures straddling the California-Oregon border. By any name, they have been a rallying point for environmentalists, Native groups, and conservation-minded legislators who see the dams’ elimination as a landmark for the environmental restoration movement. It would be the largest project of its kind in the United States.
The Klamath complex consists of four hydroelectric dams, ranging from 38 to 173 feet in height. They were built between 1922 and 1964 to limit flooding and generate hydroelectric power, and still provide electricity to about 70,000 people. In the early 2000s, facing steep renovation costs to bring the dams up to federal code, their operator, PacifiCorp, announced that it would abandon the relicensing process and pursue removal instead.
Such an effort is, in many ways, without precedent: removing the dams would involve the draw-down of three reservoirs and the release of their built-up sediment over several years, as well as the removal of over a million cubic yards of earth and ten thousand tons of concrete and metal from the structures themselves.
As operators like PacifiCorp begin to embrace dam removal, it is becoming, if not commonplace, at least less remarkable. Hundreds of dams around the country are gone, and anti-dam efforts have accelerated. Major dam removals, like those on Washington’s White Salmon and Elwha Rivers in 2011 and 2014, respectively, proved that large-scale removal is feasible. They are also providing evidence of ecosystem recovery.
The Klamath debate is fueled by predictable arguments: over rising operation costs and diminishing returns, fears that releasing built-up silt will mar the waterway for both people and native salmon, the loss of over 150 megawatts of electricity generation and conflicting assertions of water rights.
But there is a real, if subtle change in the discussion. This may be the moment when opponents of the dams abandon the vision of pure restoration of the river.
PacifiCorp’s pro-removal stance tracks both shifting public opinion and economic realities: an early round of negotiations with government officials promised limited liability and a $250 million funding package for removal that made relicensing’s estimated $400 million cost nearly twice as expensive as removal. PacifiCorp, which has managed the dams since 1961, is now on the hook for just $200 million.
The current push to eliminate the dams began in the early 2000’s during relicensing by PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of the investor Warren Buffett’s holdings group. That moment coincided with a major water-rights conflict between tribes and agricultural groups.
The Klamath River Hydroelectric Project consists of four dams that were built between 1922 and 1964 to provide flood control and hydroelectric power. Their operator, PacifiCorp, has opted not to pursue a costly relicensing process that would keep them operating. While they continue to generate electricity and store water in three reservoirs, they have extremely poor accommodations for fish passage.
Dams of the Klamath River Hydroelectric Project
Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
The Klamath debate is also overshadowed by the reality that the fish and the land once belonged to indigenous people who were dispossessed, and want a return of some small semblance of their ancestors’ life rhythms.
Even though a recent federal agency ruling may complicate the economics of removing the dams entirely, or breaching them — allowing water passage — they will likely be decommissioned soon. Still, the fight over the Klamath may help reshape environmentalists’ goals as they chip away at the legacy of engineers who sought to tame devastating floods and harness the rivers’ energy.
The longest-standing claims on the river are most clearly articulated by Frankie Myers, vice chair of the Yurok tribe. The Yuroks, along with the Karuk and Hoopa tribes, were forced to move to a reservation in the lower Klamath basin in the mid-1800s. Over the last century, they watched dams go up and the salmon, blocked from their spawning areas, disappear. “My grandparents and my parents were activists on the river here fighting for land and fishing rights,” Myers explained.
In 2002, a massive salmon die-off killed tens of thousands of Chinook salmon and ignited the modern conflict. In recent years, a century after salmon runs sometimes reached a million fish, the Pacific Fishery Management Council estimates the Klamath runs have set consecutive record lows for returning adult salmon; about 10,000 adults now spawn annually.
“The Klamath runs were the largest in California outside of the Central Valley,” said Peter Moyle, a fish biologist and professor emeritus at the University of California-Davis. “Archaeological remains show that salmon would swim all the way up to Oregon,” where they would spawn in cooler spring-fed water.
The dams – John C. Boyle, Iron Gate, and Copco No.1 and 2 – were built over a 40-year period. Now rising temperatures, algal blooms, and parasitic outbreaks, along with periodic droughts, have combined to create a crisis. ”Within 25-30 years,” Moyle said, “it’s reasonable to expect that most of the main stream Klamath will not be suitable to salmonids for most of the late summer.”
What began as a familiar debate between advocates of the benefits of taming the river and advocates of letting it run free is evolving. The new narrative of some dam opponents: removal should not aim to restore the Klamath of old, but to nurture the watershed while taking both human and environmental needs into account.
Preserving remnants of the old runs won’t restore the Klamath to its once-abundant past. “The magnitude of the human footprint has become so large it’s unimaginable to have a world without us,” said Stephen Pyne, emeritus professor at Arizona State University. “You make the arbitrary decision to ‘restore’ it to some point” in time, he said. “But what are we restoring it to? The Pleistocene? Restoration should not be the object.” His question is: “What can we learn from the past that might inform what we want to do next?” Removing the dams is not a guarantee of future salmon abundance, but, as Moyle conceded, “It’s the only real option we have.”
Saving one part of the watershed’s history, local residents argue, means losing another part. Theirs. For Rex Cozzalio, a fourth-generation landowner on the Klamath, efforts to restore the river ignore his family’s way of life. For years, Cozzalio has spoken out against removal plans, arguing that they ignore scientific realities. He and other residents believe that the Klamath, which is naturally shallow and warm, never supported the extensive fish passages that fisheries scientists describe, and would certainly be unable to if the dams come down, and built-up sediment is flushed downriver.
Richard Marshall, President of the Siskiyou County Water Users, said these concerns are often ignored. He believes tribal groups, who have been more directly involved in negotiations, "were sold a bill of goods because the original deal gave them loads of money to restore the river.” The current agreement, however, is more limited in scope, with little funding set aside for post-removal remediation.
Landowners are furious. “It’s rage,” said Loy Beardsmore, a retired teacher and local activist. “Threatening to lie down in the road.” Part of their frustration, she said, is the belief that if landowners’ worst fears come true, and water levels and property values fall while the Klamath becomes clogged with silt, they, unlike tribes, will have no legal recourse.
The fight, Marshall said, sometimes feels futile. “There’s a lot of outside funding from environmental groups and special interests that we can’t compete with. We’re a model place because we’re a large area with little population. I won’t say we’re poor, but we don’t have groups that can throw money at this.”
Residents feel that their voices ought to carry more weight. PacifiCorp’s decision, Cozzalio conceded, will always be the last word — but "the continuity and history of knowledge from generations living with the land and water give a far greater understanding and ability to make considered decisions than others, especially when the vested owner’s quality of life, future, and community are dependent upon those decisions." Ultimately, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s coming decision on the transfer of dam ownership will seal the Klamath’s fate.
The Klamath dams, like others across the West, are slowly but surely decaying. Construction of hydroelectric facilities in North America peaked in the mid-20th century, when the Klamath’s dams began generating power. In the decades since, a lack of infrastructure investment, shifting public opinion, and new options for renewable energy have made dams cost-ineffective and, at times, unsafe, leaving utilities companies scrambling.
Jeff Bodington, a financial analyst who has served as an advisor on dozens of dam removal projects said, “From an electric power value perspective, the new requirements to relicense can be prohibitively costly. If people who are getting the environmental benefits are willing to pay, and electric power doesn’t have to pay for all the benefits, then [relicensing] could make sense. But I can’t name a project where that’s the case.”
Removal thus becomes the most economically viable option. For a private nonprofit like the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which would inherit the license to operate – or decommission – the dams, Bodington said securing funding is the key hurdle. “The question quickly becomes… Do you take the dam away, or simply breach it and leave most of it there? The cost implications of which it is are huge.”
Jared Huffman, whose second congressional district in California covers the Klamath watershed, remains “one hundred percent” confident the dams will be breached. “This will absolutely serve as a model for future projects -- but it’s going to be much more successful” if it happens quickly. “What matters is being invested in the success of this project, and we’re all invested.”
Dam removal across the West is accelerating. Patricia Limerick, an environmental historian at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that effective change starts at the grassroots level, with movements like those of the Klamath tribes.
But there are risks of advocacy without complete understanding. FERC’s role in approving license transfer has resulted in public scrutiny. “FERC is being bombarded, people are writing from all over the world parroting the KRRC position that fish will populate again. Fact of the matter is that they don’t know what the issues are,” Marshall said.
FERC’s most recent move may not have done the dam-removal camp any favor by requiring that PacifiCorp remain involved — and liable — throughout the license transfer process. Bob Gravely, a communications specialist at the firm, said that though PacifiCorp remains committed to removing the dams, the ruling would force substantial changes to the original agreement, under which PacifiCorp would not have been responsible for potential damages.
While this ruling’s impact on the dams’ future remains unclear, Limerick sees FERC’s openness to a range of concerns — including environmental arguments — as evidence of a larger shift in attitudes from construction to conservation, and engineering to biology. Moyle agreed. “When I first got interested in dams, I started asking engineers: ‘How long do dams last?’ And they would say, as far as we know forever. But now we know that’s not true. Dams fail for various reasons, not all of them structural."
Changing notions of the West itself help explain both the new willingness to remove dams and the growing understanding that, when that is done, rivers will still never be what they once were. “There was a sense, even into the 1960s,” Pyne said, “that the story of America was a dialectic between European civilization and wilderness” — a flawed narrative that ignored the impact of indigenous peoples.
Moving away from the narrative of restoration toward a goal of environmental management will be its own challenge. Beardsmore, for her part, said that even if removal scars the land, “the [old] narrative is too powerful for reality to undermine it,” leaving the vision of restoration intact.
Pyne echoed this concern. "Americans are more prone to looking at the past than the future. We need to rewrite the agenda, and make the future better for our children…. otherwise you get the equivalent of Williamsburg. It’s fun, it’s a theme park, but people don’t live there."
Myers, the Yurok vice chair, said that the mystique of a recoverable past, and the countervailing narrative of economic development, are both uniquely American. “That conversation of balance hasn’t taken place in the country for 500 years — the only conversation has been around growth, with the idea that more growth always equals prosperity. We're finally getting to the place in our public consciousness where we can talk about balance… with the natural world, and recognize that we're not above it, and that what we do to it affects our lives.”
Edited by Felicity Barringer.
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Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.
I have followed this project closely for several years. This is the most thorough, timely and balanced article that I have seen yet. In particular, the author should be commended for reaching out to several key players, obtaining excellent quotes from them and placing them in context. I look forward to reading your future updates on important issues in the Klamath River Basin, including the tradeoffs between restoring the river and agriculture.
Should the dams be breached. What is the current fisheries management plan for breaching dams. Does the the California Department of Fisheries have an approved plan to prevent some of the existing nonnative species such as bass, crappie, and perch, etc. from being introduced into the lower Klamath Watershed.
Francisco Nodarse responds:
The major emphasis of the research has been on what happens to native salmon, and some consideration has also been given to sucker fish. The writer makes a good point about bass, perch, and other fish. Some work on the issue of non-native species expansion in the wake of dam removal has been done by Desiree Tullos at Oregon State. Generally, scientists believe that species expansion is not a major threat in the Pacific Northwest. However, there is no clear answer to this question in the plans of fisheries experts we reviewed for this post.