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The Winners, the Losers, and the Landscape That Might Emerge If the Klamath River Dams Disappear

Francisco L. Nodarse
Aug 19 2020

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.

The Upper Klamath River in Southern Oregon, photographed in June 2016

The Upper Klamath River in Southern Oregon, photographed in June 2016   Bob Wick/ Bureau of Land Management via Flickr

By Francisco L. Nodarse

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.

Two Hundred Miles From the Ocean, a Gauntlet of Dams

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.

Graphic: Map of the Klamath River and dams


Dams of the Klamath River Hydroelectric Project


Graphic: Dams of the Klamath River Hydroelectric Project.

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; ESRI Satellite Imagery; Natural Earth Data; USGS National Hydrography Dataset; NASA Elevation Data;

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West


For Indigenous Peoples, a Chance to Restore Ancestral Fish Runs

A ranch outside Chiloquin, Oregon, on the northeast shore of Upper Klamath Lake.

Yurok, Karuk and Hupa citizens demonstrated in favor of removing the Klamath Dams at the headquarters of Pacificorp in Portland in September 2008 (left and right), and of the Berkshire Hathaway company in Omaha in May 2007 (center).   Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe

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.”

Is a Return to a Pristine Past Possible? What Would a Future Klamath look like?

Algae

Algae buildup on the J.C. Boyle Reservoir is visible from aerial imagery in Google Maps.   Google Maps

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.”

Skeptical of Prospects for Fish Survival, Water Users Rebel Against Removal Plans

A ranch outside Chiloquin, Oregon, on the northeast shore of Upper Klamath Lake.

A ranch outside Chiloquin, Oregon, on the northeast shore of Upper Klamath Lake.   Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

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.

Environmental and Safety Regulations Skewer Aging Dams’ Economics, as Cultural Winds Shift Against Them

The Elwha Dam on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula during and after deconstruction in October 2011 and May 2012.

The Elwha Dam on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula during and after deconstruction in October 2011 and May 2012.   National Park Service

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.”

When Dams Are Removed, the Future Will Not Be the Past. Nor Should It.

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.”

 

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Edited by Felicity Barringer.

 

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Reader Comments

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.

Anonymous Los Angeles

Responding to The Winners, the Losers, and the Landscape That Might Emerge If the Klamath River Dams Disappear

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.

8/27/2020,11:02am

Roger G.J. Rogers Upper Shasta Valley

Responding to The Winners, the Losers, and the Landscape That Might Emerge If the Klamath River Dams Disappear

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.

8/20/2020, 5:32pm

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.

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For a Second Year, a Landmark Plastic Recycling Measure Fails to gain sufficient support in the California legislature. The bill would have made it a state goal to reduce waste from single-use products by 75 percent, and required that single-use products be recyclable or compostable. The final 37-18 vote at the last minutes of the session fell three votes short of the tally it needed. KQED

The Disappearance of Aleutian Island Otters Frays Alaskan Waters’ Food Web. Over the past 40 years, more than 90 percent of sea otters have vanished from the Aleutians’ delicate seascape. There, otters are more protector than predator, holding the entire ecosystem together by feasting on destructive sea urchins at a rate of up to 1,000 a day. Fewer otters, more urchins. Climate change makes things worse, as reported by a paper in the journal Science. Populations of sea urchins have boomed, carpeting the sea floor in spiny spheres that mow down entire forests of kelp. Now the living, red-algae reefs on which the swirling stands of kelp once stood are in peril. Softened by warming and acidifying waters, the coral-like structures have quickly succumbed to the urchins’ tiny teeth. The New York Times

Many Joshua Trees Were Doomed When Lightning Strikes hit the Mojave National Preserve. On August 15, the first day of California’s lightning siege, thunderstorms rolled across the Mojave National Preserve. The Cima Dome wildfire turned the preserve into a Joshua tree graveyard. Most of the charred trees remain standing, tangible, eerily beautiful ghosts in place of living trees with their crooked beauty. The ghosts will wither and the 43,273 acres of the Dome fire will be despoiled. Los Angeles Times

Getting California Grapes Off the Vine Before Fire and Smoke Ruin Them means depending on vineyard workers who are largely undocumented, and in terms of COVID-19 risk, poorly protected. The wildfires, which have so far collectively burned more than 1.6 million acres in Northern California, sparked right at the beginning of Sonoma County’s grape harvest. And they’re adding to the hazards already faced by some of the country’s poorest and least visible laborers. Gabriel Machabanski, associate director of a workers’ rights organization in Sonoma County, said “Since March, there has been so little work for low-wage workers such as day laborers and seasonal farmworkers; the current situation lends itself, more so than usual, to exploitation by employers.” A photo essay: nighttime harvesting near fires. Civil Eats

One of the Worst COVID-19 Hotspots Is Now an Epicenter of Effective Contact Tracing. After infections are identified, a team of 35 people fans out after to rapidly test people, isolate the infected and visit the homes of any who may have been exposed. Both the White Mountain Apache and nearby Navajo Nation experienced some of the country’s worst infection rates, yet both began to turn things around, in part with robust contact tracing. “We’re seen a significant decline in cases on the reservation at the same time that things were on fire for the rest of the state,” said one local epidemiologist. High Country News

Feral Pigs Change Ecosystems and Human Lives, from Texas to Montana to Saskatchewan. There are as many as 9 million feral swine across the U.S.; populations have expanded from about 17 states to 38 over the last three decades. Texas has about 1.5 million and spends upwards of $4 million annually controlling them, with little hope of eradication. Florida, Georgia, and California also have vast populations. “Pig populations are completely out of control,” said one expert. “The efforts to deal with them are about one percent of what’s currently needed.” The province of Saskatchewan may soon have more wild pigs than people. Montana’s new education campaign, “Squeal on Pigs,” is designed to push residents to report sightings to 24-hour hotline, alerting specialists in pig elimination. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: August 31, 2020

Upending Plans to Mine Precious Metals Near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the Army Corps of Engineers Throws a New Hurdle. The Corps, which a month ago said the Pebble Mine would pose no environmental risk, now says it would mean trouble for the sockeye salmon that thrive in the area. After opposition from presidential son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who have both been fishing in Bristol Bay, the Corps threw a new hurdle that could thwart federal permitting, finding that “discharge at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources.” Also, a scientist studying the robustness of the sockeye population reports that an unusual, ancestral breed of salmon would be at risk from the mine. E&E News Hakai Magazine

The Redwoods in California’s Oldest State Park Withstood a Wildfire that tore through the area. Reporters found that fears were unrealized that many of the trees, some up to 2,000 years old, had been destroyed. And a relieved scientist pointed out that redwood forests evolved to withstand fire. Associated Press

Colorado’s Governor Is Focused on Promoting San Luis Valley Farmers’ New Approach to dealing with the increasing aridity of an area that is the epicenter of the state’s drought. Quinoa and hemp replace barley and tomatoes, and farmers form local districts to control groundwater use. Denver Post

California Sues to Block New Federal Rules Allowing Farmers Access to So Much Water from the state’s largest river systems that extinction for the delta smelt and two different salmon species could be inevitable. Two huge networks of dams and canals — whose construction led directly to the dwindling of fish populations — control water distribution to farms that supply one-third of the country’s vegetables and half of its nuts and fruit; scientists have been pressured to speed up their evaluations of the threat. KQED

Three Texas Cities Are Models of Efficient and Innovative Water Use. Austin adopted a 100-year water plan in 2018 calling for such advanced conservation and recycling programs that the city anticipates supplying a healthy share of its future water demand by reengineering its water system as a water collection and recycling loop. El Paso cut its per-capita water consumption from 205 gallons daily 30 years ago to 129 gallons today. Some of its conservation practices: subsidizing the replacement of water-wasting bathroom fixtures and regulating lawn watering. San Antonio subsidizes the distribution of digital water-flow sensors and encourages the use of native plants to replace the thirstier show species in local gardens. Circle of Blue

“Keep Immigrant Bees Out.” Environmentalists Want Honey Bees Barred from public lands in Utah. Beekeepers’ honey-bee hives sometimes travel to pollinate crops elsewhere — particularly California’s almond crop — before returning to Utah’s national forests to forage in areas free of pesticides. But honeybees are non-native. Environmentalists are petitioning to ban them from these areas, saying they may spread disease and put unnecessary pressure on native bees. Salt Lake Tribune

Shifting the Balance of Power Between Preserving Birds and Developing Energy. A 1.5-million-acre oil-and-gas development proposed in Wyoming is in the middle of a superhighway for migrating birds, and a court’s insistence on retaining federal penalties for accidental bird deaths from power lines and wind turbines. A potential go-ahead from the Interior Department could be coming soon on the project after six years of federal environmental reviews. The decision, which quoted the Harper Lee novel, saying “it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird,” could dictate how companies operate in Wyoming for the next decade and what happens when they kill birds. E&E Daily

A Trout With Feathers: Looking At the West’s Only Aquatic Songbird. A photo essay on dippers, small gray birds that bob up and down on rocks, dive into streams, and resurface with insects in their beaks. Audubon Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: August 17, 2020

Final Approval to Drill Arctic Wildlife Refuge clears the way for an auction for oil and gas drilling rights on the 1/6 million-acre plain. Four decades of fights over the refuge have paralleled four decades of science showing the burning of fossil fuels is heating the air and the oceans and changing the climate. These changes may make it difficult to sustain the infrastructure needed for drilling. Elsewhere in Alaska, ConocoPhillips is using “chillers” to keep the warming climate from thawing the tundra under its Willow oil drilling platform on the North Slope. Washington Post Bloomberg News

California Heat Sets Records, Creates Rolling Blackouts As Fires Spawn Firenados. The combination of intense heat, dry vegetation and lightning storms has the state struggling on several fronts. The unusual and extreme phenomenon of a fire-generated tornado occurred on August 15 in the Lake Tahoe area as a new fire quickly spun out of control. A few days earlier, the Lake Fire outside Los Angeles spawned its own firenado. Rolling blackouts hit the state while in Death Valley, the temperature hit a record 130 degrees. Los Angeles Times National Public Radio Desert Sun

Arizona’s Drought Intensified as Seasonal Monsoons Again Turn Into “Nonsoons.” With temperatures in Phoenix exceeding 110 degrees for days on end and the three-month period ending in June was the second hottest and third driest in 125 years. Populous Maricopa County, including Phoenix and Scottsdale, is in a severe drought. The impact on the water levels at Lake Mead, which is now at 40 percent of capacity, will mean that Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will receive less water from the Colorado River. Arizona Water News Arizona Republic

Some Oregon Forest Land Would Be Lost as Spotted Owl Habitat if a federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposal becomes final. The proposal would take 204,653 acres, or 2 percent of the total of 9.6 Million Acres, from the area of ancient forests designated as critical habitat and set aside as habitat for the endangered owl. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With Ice Disappearing, Pacific Walruses Are Moving Sooner and Sooner to Beaches of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. They just gathered at Point Lay at the end of July, earlier than ever before. The walruses had evolved to use floating ice as platforms for foraging and rearing their young. But for the past 13 years, after the first year of a record-low extent of sea ice, they have been moving to the Point Lay site by the tens of thousands every summer. Arctic Today

A Colorado Lab Works to Prepare the National Electric Grid for a Renewable Future. A scientist used this metaphor to describe the challenge of retrofitting the three power grids to let them handle the upcoming changes: It's like updating a reliable 1957 Chevrolet for the complex technologies and climate-related hazards of the 21st century. What was recently unveiled at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado is a proving ground for the high-tech creations and will test the impacts of battery- and hydrogen-powered energy storage systems and large increases of renewable energy. Scientific American

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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