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'It means the river has a future': Advocates cheer milestone as water flows from a Klamath River dam

Water flowing out of a tunnel at the base of Iron Gate dam on Jan. 11, 2024. Releasing water from the reservoir above was a major milestone in removing the Klamath River dams.
Ren Brownell
Klamath River Renewal Corporation
Water flowing out of a tunnel at the base of Iron Gate dam on Jan. 11, 2024. Releasing water from the reservoir above was a major milestone in removing the Klamath River dams.

This week, water started being released from a reservoir on the Klamath River, kicking off the largest dam removal in U.S. history.

On Jan. 11, the gate on a sixteen-foot wide tunnel at the base of Iron Gate dam was widened from a crack to 36 inches. As the water level rose, Amy Cordalis and Mike Belchik could hear boulders rolling and tumbling; the water turned to dark chocolate milk as pent-up sediment surged through the opening of the dam.

“This is historic and life changing,” said Cordalis, an attorney and Yurok Tribe member who has played a critical role in advocating for dam removal. “It means that the Yurok people have a future. It means the river has a future; the salmon have a future.”

Early that morning, she and Belchik, senior policy advisor for the Yurok Tribe, had come to stand in the dawn chill to witness the first big surge as the gate was opened and the river started coming back to life.

“It's kind of surreal,” said Belchik, who has worked on Klamath River water issues for the tribe for 29 years. “I don't know why we had such confidence that it was going to happen. But we did. We always knew it would happen.”

By 10:00 am, trucks lined the muddy road downstream of the dam, and a gaggle of men and women in high-viz vests and hard hats had gathered to witness the gush of frothy water pouring through the tunnel.

Water flowing out of a tunnel at the base of Iron Gate Dam on Jan. 11, 2024 as the reservoir behind it is drawn down.
Jason Hartwick
Swiftwater Films via KRRC
Water flowing out of a tunnel at the base of Iron Gate Dam on Jan. 11, 2024 as the reservoir behind it is drawn down.

The lowering of Iron Gate and two other reservoirs on the Klamath River will make way for the removal of three dams in what’s known as the Lower Klamath Project in Northern California and Southern Oregon. For decades, these barriers have blocked salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey from accessing habitat above them and contributed to poor water quality below. In the time since the dams were constructed, the Klamath River’s coho and Chinook runs have dwindled to a fraction of their historic abundance.

When tribal activists first started calling for the removal of four Klamath River dams in the late 1990s, people thought they were “crazy,” said Leaf Hillman, a Karuk Tribe elder who founded the tribe’s natural resources department. “We've never really considered any other alternative to removing dams,” he explained. “And so it was a fight that we were committed to, and that we knew that we had to win. And it's been an intergenerational struggle.”

For many, it was the massive die-off of Chinook salmon in 2002 that sounded the alarm. An estimated 34,000 to 78,000 fish died near the mouth of the Klamath River when a lethal combination of low water, large numbers of returning fish, and managed river flows from the dams caused fish to crowd together and allowed two fish diseases to run rampant. The loss of these fish didn’t just mean the loss of a fun summer fishing activity, said Brook Thompson, a Yurok Tribe member who was seven years old at the time. “Those salmon to me are the connections I have with my relatives,” she explained. “In a day, that was all gone.”

Holding a corporation accountable

During an era when water conflicts were often described as “farmers vs. fish,” tribal activists and their allies, which included fishermen and environmental groups, sought to reframe the narrative by holding PacifiCorp, which used the dams to produce hydropower, accountable for the dams’ negative impacts on fish runs. The dams’ license was up for renewal, and advocates wanted to make sure dam removal was considered as a viable alternative to the costly retrofits that would need to be added to enable fish to swim past the dams.

Amy Cordalis and Barry
Juliet Grable
Attorney Amy Cordalis and Barry McCovey, director of the Yurok Tribal Fisheries Department on Jan. 11, 2024. As members of the Yurok Tribe, Cordalis and McCovey have long been involved in advocacy to remove the Klamath River dams.

In 2004, Hillman, his family, and a contingent of activists traveled to Scotland to confront shareholders of Scottish Power, which at the time owned PacifiCorp and the dams. After Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway purchased PacifiCorp in 2005, activists began making trips to shareholder meetings in Omaha, Nebraska. Eventually, under pressure from activists and faced with expensive upgrades, PacifiCorp yielded.

In 2021, the federal regulator in charge of dams agreed to transfer ownership to a private non-profit corporation, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, backed with funding from the states of California and Oregon.

The fight to save the Klamath River’s salmon shaped the lives and careers of people like Thompson, who grew up holding up posters at protests. Today, she is pursuing a PhD that focuses, in part, on how to incorporate native knowledge into policy. For her, it all comes back to the river and the fish that are so central to native diets, ceremonies, and identity.

“Yurok spirituality and Yurok ways of life cannot exist without having the salmon here,” she said.

Many things to many people

Although tribes throughout the Klamath Basin see dam removal as positive and necessary, their specific concerns vary.

For the downriver tribes in California, like the Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk, it’s a chance to restore their health, traditions, and ways of life. The Klamath Tribes, who live along Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake, hope not only to see salmon return to their ancestral territory, but to improve the health of the upper basin and the endangered sucker fish that dwell there. For California’s Shasta Indian Nation, dam removal means the chance to recover land that was inundated by the Copco Lake reservoir, and to reconnect places that are sacred to the tribe.

Sami Jo Difuntorum is one of between 300 and 250 enrolled members of the Shasta Indian Nation.
Cassandra Profita
Sami Jo Difuntorum is one of between 300 and 250 enrolled members of the Shasta Indian Nation.

Anglers, fishing guides, and rafters will face a radically changed landscape that will affect both their businesses and how they spend time on the river.

For nearby residents, particularly those who live around Copco Lake, losing the dams also means the loss of the centerpiece of their community, along with concerns about property values and their ability to safeguard their homes from wildfire in a high-risk region.

Up until now, vehicles could easily access the lake to pump water to fight fires, and aircraft could dip their buckets into the lake, according to Francis Gill, a Copco Lake resident and fire chief for the community’s volunteer fire department. Gill also fears the community will be much more exposed to fire without the lake as a buffer.

“Now, instead of having that lake as a huge barrier, we get the potential for fire to jump the river, get from one side to the other easily,” said Gill. “Especially just with the way the wildfires have been getting the last 10 years; they just blow up so fast and get so big, so quickly.”

A reconnected watershed

The controlled drawdown at Iron Gate dam is the result of careful engineering and months of preparation. For the next week, water will flow through the bypass tunnel at an average rate of 2,200 cubic feet per second, draining the reservoir between two and four feet per day. Later this month, J.C. Boyle, the uppermost of the three dams, will be breached, followed by the Copco 1 dam. By June, the Klamath River should be flowing more or less within its historic channel, and the work of dismantling the structures can begin.

A map of the four dams that will be removed on the Klamath Basin.
Resource Environmental Solutions
A map of the four dams that will be removed on the Klamath Basin.

Other dam removals on the Penobscot River in Maine and the Elwha River in Washington State have shown that rivers—and the fish that depend on them—can recover quickly. The successful activist campaign and physical restoration of the Klamath watershed will no doubt inform other dam removal efforts, said Dave Owen, professor at U.C. Law, San Francisco.

“Every time we do this, and we do this at a big scale, we learn new things about the legal pathways,” said Owen. “I think the other way it helps is it just helps people see that this is possible, and that it can be highly successful.”

Advocates are quick to point out that dam removal alone will not save the Klamath River’s salmon runs; however, removing the barriers will open up 76 miles of coho habitat and over 400 miles of Chinook habitat, said Shari Witmore, fish biologist at NOAA Fisheries.

If modeling is correct, as many as 80% more Chinook salmon could return to the basin within about 30 years after dams are removed. Ocean harvest could increase by as much as 46%. But this will depend in part on restoring important tributaries, including the cold, spring-fed rivers in the Upper Klamath Basin, which have been compromised with diking and draining of wetlands. “Once we restore that, we put this basin back together,” said Witmore. “That creates a lot of resilience over time with climate change, and it buffers against multi-year droughts.”

Cordalis agrees that more work lies ahead. But she’s also looking forward to fulfilling a simple personal goal.

“Fishing,” she said. “I want to go fishing.”

Note: This story was co-reported by Juliet Grable and Erik Neumann. The print story was written by Grable and the audio story was produced by Neumann for broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered on Jan. 12, 2024.

Juliet Grable is a writer based in Southern Oregon and a regular contributor to JPR News. She writes about wild places and wild creatures, rural communities, and the built environment.
Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.