National Geographic News
The Copco 1 dam on the Klamath River near Hornbrook, California.

Copco I Dam on the Klamath River outside Hornbrook, California, on August 21, 2009.

Photograph by Jeff Barnard, AP

Anne Minard

for National Geographic News

Published July 25, 2011

This story is part of a special National Geographic News series on global water issues.

A controversial plan to remove four dams from the Klamath River to save endangered salmon could make its way to Congress in the coming weeks.

Capitol Hill lawmakers will consider taking down California’s Iron Gate, Copco 2, Copco 1, and John C. Boyle dams at a cost of about $1 billion, half of that potentially funded with federal tax dollars.

The removal plan has the backing of several Native American tribes on the Klamath who rely on the river for salmon fishing, as well as farmers who depend on its water for irrigation. The plan also has the support of PacifiCorp, Warren Buffett’s power company, which owns the dams.

Buffett’s company could benefit from dam removal because it might cost more to install the required modifications for fish passage if the dams remain. But if dams come down, salmon would be the biggest winners.

(Read the 2008 National Geographic magazine article on the Klamath River.)

Salmon runs have dwindled in the past century—from millions of fish to less than 100,000 in most years—primarily because of the dams, according to nonprofit environmental groups such as American Rivers and native tribes that depend on the fish. Those same groups say hits to water quality such as farm runoff are also to blame.

Mike Belchik is a fisheries biologist for the Yurok Tribe in California. The tribe maintains that it has relied on the fish since “time immemorial,” Belchick says, adding that archaeologists say humans have lived and fished in the area for at least 9,000 years. He says taking out the dams would allow the fish to return to their historic and more productive cold-water mountain streams, which are currently blocked by the dams, and help resolve disruptions to the main stem Klamath where they’re just barely hanging on today.

No Silver Bullet

But a recent scientific review of the dam-removal plan warned that if dam removal went forward, it would not be a silver bullet.

The independent report, commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reported that dam removal could help boost Chinook salmon population if other factors, such as water quality and warming due to climate change are in kept in check.

Belchik and the other proponents agree.

Dam removal, even with its uncertainty, would open the door for a salmon rebound, he says—and help assure their long-term survival.

“That water’s going to be stable even in the face of climate change. We need to get these dams down and get these fish to these cold water springs,” he says. “That’s their future.”

Crash in the Klamath

The Klamath River originates in eastern Oregon and empties into the Pacific in northern California. Its diverse course—beginning with huge snow-fed springs and flowing over high desert on its way to the sea—supported thriving migratory salmon populations for thousands of years. In turn it also supported people who depended on the fish including the Yurok, Karuk, Klamath, and Hoopa Valley Indian tribes and, more recently, non-tribal fishermen.

Just before the start of the 20th century, farmers moved into the basin. Some dams—including two on the upper Klamath that aren’t planned for removal—were put in for irrigation.

The other four Klamath dams—the ones on the chopping block—are used solely for hydropower. Previous estimates have suggested the dams together produce the energy equivalent of 360 tons of coal, or enough to power about 70,000 homes.

As the Klamath was developed, its salmon runs dwindled. Spring-run Chinook salmon have gone extinct near the dams, and species such as the Coho are so imperiled they can’t be fished.

Now, subsistence and commercial fishers alike are relying on just the fall-run Chinook. Once teeming with a million adult salmon, that run now sees fewer than 100,000 fish. Federal agencies are working on an economic analysis of the fishery, but it is not ready yet.

Still, when the Yurok and Karuk tribes first asked more than a decade ago for the removal of the dams, “We got laughed at,” Belchik said.

But that was before 2001, when irrigation was shut down for the salmon’s benefit, hitting some Klamath farmers’ bottom lines. The next year, the government erred in the other direction—giving farmers too much water at the expense of the fish—resulting in a devastating fish kill.

“Those disasters got the farmers and us talking,” Belchik said.

Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, which unifies the river’s farmers, said most of his members believe there should be more dams, not fewer. But, as part of the dam-removal plan that the association now supports, irrigators will be guaranteed a reliable amount of water from year to year out of the Klamath. It’s less than what they’d like, but it will allow them to stay in business, Addington said.

(Read Addington’s account from the field in “After Decades of Conflict, Adversaries Join Forces to Save the Klamath River—and Themselves.”)

Ambitious Plan

Last year, 28 stakeholders, including the famers, the tribes and PacifiCorp, signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. It spells out a laundry list of preliminary requirements that must be completed—studies, interagency agreements, and approvals all the way up to Congress and the Interior secretary—leading to removal of the dams by 2020. The recently completed scientific review was one of the requirements.

The public utility commissions in both Oregon and California have signed off on the agreement, and Congress is the next stop.

The forthcoming legislation won’t request any congressional funds for the actual removal of the dams. The various interest groups have pledged the necessary $450 million for that. But Congress would be required to approve up to $500 million more over the next decade for companion projects necessary to restore fish habitat, such as replanting along the sides of streams, restoring water quality, and working with farmers and ranchers on water conservation.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-California, who chairs the House Water and Power Subcommittee, would be a pivotal figure in any congressional negotiations.


“The attempt to destroy four perfectly good hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River at a cost of more than a half-billion dollars and at a time of severe electricity shortages is insane,” he wrote in an email, adding that the proposal would also shut down the state-owned Iron Gate Fish Hatchery, which has started its own salmon recovery efforts.

Should the agreement make it through Congress, the next step is for the Interior secretary to sign off by next March.

(See dam, irrigation, and water infrastructure photos.)

A Precedent

Klamath dam-removal advocates could get a boost from two dam-removal efforts in Washington State that are slated to start this fall. American Rivers is celebrating the pending removal of the Elwah River’s 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam, as well as the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, a tributary of the Columbia River.

“When the dams were built 100 years ago, they served a useful purpose,” Amy Kober, an American Rivers spokesperson, wrote in an email. “Today, we value our imperiled salmon runs and free-flowing rivers, and all the recreation, spiritual, and economic benefits they provide.”

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