The Klamath River – Past and …Future?

Larry De RidderRivers, Salmon Leave a Comment

By Larry De Ridder


The Klamath River hosts the third largest salmon run on the west coast of the United States, behind only the Columbia and Sacramento systems.  We, as salt water anglers, harvest many fish which originate in this system, as do anglers for hundreds of miles north and south of us.  However, the past, and potentially the future, are quite different from what we experience today.

Currently, there are several dams on the upper Klamath River and its estuaries, the first of which was built in 1909.  The four largest on the Klamath itself  (Iron Gate, Copco 1 and Copco 2 in California and J.C. Boyle in Oregon), block salmon access to about 420 miles of ancestral spawning grounds.  The reservoirs store water and produce electricity, but also produce a host of side effects.  The number one side effect is to substantially limit the salmon population.  The second is the resulting political fights over the stored water.  When in the dam planning and building stage, the government promoted the Upper Klamath Basin as farmland, and promised buyers they would receive water rights.  However, downstream users also had water rights; hydro power generators require water; salmon need water – you begin to see the issue.  In many years promises exceed the amount of water available.  In recent years events have gradually conspired to make the issue come to a head.  To recap some recent history:

Spring 2001 – the Feds announced there would be no water deliveries from Upper Klamath Lake or the Klamath River to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project due to drought and the Endangered Species Act.  This was the first time irrigation water was actually turned off, though some limited deliveries were ultimately permitted late that summer.

Fall 2002 – the infamous fish kill on the Lower Klamath was essentially caused by a “perfect storm” of conditions which resulted from a federally ordered change in the water flows.  Higher water flows would have prevented the premature deaths of an estimated 33,000 adult salmon.

2005 – the first of what is now an annual public health warning to avoid contact with water in Iron Gate Reservoir, due to toxic algae in the warm, stagnant water.

2006 – low Klamath River salmon adult stocks resulted in severe sport and commercial fishing restrictions for 700 miles of California and Oregon saltwater fishermen, as well as in-system fishers.

2010 – a significant reduction in water deliveries to Reclamation’s Klamath Project due to dry conditions.  Klamath Tribes are forced into very limited sucker catches for ceremonial use for the 25th consecutive year.

Over at least the last 15 years it has become increasingly clear that the situation as it exists cannot continue.  One recurring theme for a solution involves the complete removal of the four dams combined with clearly described water-allocation limits and rules.  Most downstream users are in general agreement on the solution, though it generates many new problems.  First off is who to bill for the deconstruction work?  The most recent study indicates it would cost at least $1 billion and take a crew of 4,600 about 15 years to accomplish, though that could still be cheaper than building fish ladders around the dams.  Opponents include the 100 or so lake-side property owners who would see their waterfront properties become just another collection of parcels located in the hills above the river.  Agricultural users promised water by the federal government, and who have in many cases been farming the same property for generations could also be left literally “high and dry”.  So, the political infighting continues, and the river still runs too low and warm for much of the year.

So, what does an actual dam removal look like?  Though about 1,100 small dams in the U.S. have come down in the last couple of decades, the only comparable project I’ve been able to identify is the removal of two large dams from the Elwha River in Washington.  The Elwha River runs from the forested peaks of Olympic National Park to eventually pour into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Just as on the Klamath, the Elwha was dammed about a century ago.  In this case there was the 110-foot Elwha Dam, built in 1913, five miles from the ocean, and a few years later 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam, ten miles further upriver.  Both were built over the objections of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose nation is located at the mouth of the river.  The purpose of the dams was to provide power to nearby timber and paper mill operations, and neither provided a fish ladder to allow upriver access to salmonids.  In fact, about 90 percent of the river was made inaccessible to migrating fish, and salmonid populations crashed.  Both dams were removed recently.  In the process, scientists were provided a front-row seat and have been observing how the ecosystem has responded.  To give a feeling for how long this process took, it was in the late 60’s when political pressure for dam removal really took hold, 1992 when Congress provided for the demolition, and 2014 when the project was completed.

There are two basic methods for removing a dam.  The simplest is popularly knows as “blow-and-go”, in which engineers plant dynamite, blow out the concrete and let the water run wild.  The second option is to take out the dam in stages, gradually lowering the lake level and running a more controlled (and expensive) process.  Previous blow-and-go removals included 49-foot high Marmot Dam in Oregon, and 124-foot Condit Dam in Washington.  In 2007 at Marmot Dam, 20% of all the sand and gravel stored behind the dam washed downstream in the first 48 hours.  In 2011 at Condit Dam the fine-grained sediment formed a slurry with the water and generated a high-speed flow into the lower river which startled observers with its speed and destructive force.  Clearly, blow-and-go is a dangerous game with unpredictable results.

The two Elwha dams were estimated to have locked up about 27 million cubic yards of sediment.  On the Elwha, in an attempt to prevent a water-sand-stone destructive storm on the lower river, both dams were taken out more slowly.  In 2011 Elwha Dam was taken down in stages over several months, and the upriver Glines Canyon Dam was taken down even more slowly over several years.  After the lower dam was removed, the river began to move the stored sediment downstream, particularly during winter storms.  In short order the river re-deposited 90% of the accumulated sediment at the river mouth.  The massive amounts of fine-grained sediment formed large sandbars and caused the lower river to spread out in a complex system of braided channels.  The silt also filled the river bottom, burying the cobbles and stones with a fine-grained blanket, and algae and other aquatic plants promptly began to grow.  The silt levels were such that the nearby city of Port Angeles, which draws drinking water from the river, found their intake filters overwhelmed and had to rely on back-up well water for a period of time.  There are ongoing studies to determine how much silt is still coming downstream, and to try and prevent another closure of the water intakes.  The huge plume of silty water dropped the last of its load in the ocean, killing off the local kelp forests.  As time passes the sediment is clearing, but it is unclear how long it will take before the lower river and the nearby ocean fully recover.

As fish access to the upper river was restored, some returning fish continued upriver past the sites of the old dams.  Other salmon smolts were taken from the two nearby fish hatcheries and manually transported upriver to jump-start the fish recovery.  That action prompted a lawsuit from those convinced that putting young hatchery fish in the upper river would actually make it harder for wild fish to recolonize the area.  That legal fight is continuing.  Final results aren’t in yet, but thus far it appears all five native salmon species are increasingly moving into the upper river, and vegetation is increasing in the lower river where the silt has formed sandbars and topsoil.  One measure of success is the number of salmon redds observed.  One multi-year survey of established river sections found about 400 redds after the lower dam came down.  That number increased to 800 in 2013 and nearly 1,100 in 2014.  Even the local lamprey eel population has recolonized the area between where the dams once stood.

The next large project in California could be the Carmel River, where engineers want to drain a reservoir without flushing the sediment downstream.  All of this data will become more important locally as political pressure to resolve the Klamath Basin’s water allocation issues through dam removal continues.  Studies predict that removal of the dams could result in an 81% increase in the Chinook, Coho and Steelhead populations on the Klamath.

Recent negotiations between stakeholders resulted in the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA).  The Feds, in cooperation with the states of California and Oregon produced a combined joint Environmental Impact Statement and Report.  EIR/EIS documents, if done properly, try to anticipate all reasonably foreseeable results of the proposed action, and compare them with alternate actions, and lack of action.  If you would like to peruse the document yourself it can be found on-line at  You will find an Executive Summary, the final EIS, and a host of appendices from the feds, states, tribes and other interested parties.  At this stage it’s far too early to conclusively state that the dams will come down, and if so to project a timeline.  However, since the health of this river and its salmon runs has a major impact on our fishing seasons, it would be wise for us to be aware of what could take place, and understand the consequences of both removal and leaving the dams intact.

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