How Will Dam Removal Impact Fishing on the Klamath River?

Northern California is pretty famous for good fishing. In fact, I’ve often wondered how much this may have to do with why a lot of people moved here to begin with. Many have also heard something about removing some dams on the Klamath River. It might be helpful to talk about what’s going on in non-scientific terms, and how this might affect prospects for even more good fishing in the future.

Why is removing dams good for fishing? Most anglers are at least vaguely aware that salmon and steelhead live most of their lives in the ocean, but need freshwater rivers to reproduce (spawn). When you install a dam (usually for hydroelectric energy production or flood control) this blocks fish from reaching their spawning grounds, resulting in fewer fish. Dams around the world are at least partly responsible for many runs of ocean-going species to be listed on the Endangered Species list. When you remove a dam the fish once again have access to successful spawning, resulting in many more fish.

Conservation organization California Trout (CalTrout) recently hosted a webinar on the removal of four Klamath River dams for the benefit of salmon and steelhead. Removing the four, Iron Gate, Copco 1 and 2, and J.C. Boyle dams will be the largest dam removal project in American history allowing fish access to over 300 additional miles of spawning habitat. To be specific, the fish don’t really spawn in the Klamath River. They spawn in all the smaller streams and rivers that flow into the Klamath. The Klamath is the highway fish must take to get to the tributaries, so removing the “road closed” signs will likely be a big help. CalTrout brought scientists and project managers together to talk about removing the dams and restoring the smaller streams and rivers where the fish actually spawn. Many conservation organizations, public entities in California and Oregon as well as Tribal governments have been involved in this for many years.

The Klamath dams are quite old, which means in this day and age the amounts of energy they can produce is relatively small. When it came time to relicense the dams, new federal regulations required the installation of fish ladders on the dams for the benefit of the salmon and steelhead. It didn’t take rocket scientists to see that it would be cheaper to remove the dams entirely than install modern fish ladders. The other things dams do is block the natural flushing cycle of rivers, which means fine sediment builds up behind all dams. If left in place long enough (hundreds of years) most dams would fill up with sediment completely turning the dam into a manmade waterfall. When dams are removed the sediments are flushed back out into the ocean and redistributed by ocean currents.

What’s the Plan?

The four dams are scheduled for removal, so instead of being stopped at Iron Gate Dam in northern California, the fish will be able to get as far as Keno Dam just over the border in Oregon, and all the smaller tributary streams they will actually use for spawning. Meanwhile numerous organizations, farmers and landowners are working with California and Oregon Departments of Fish & Wildlife to coordinate and finance restoration of all the spawning tributaries. Private landowners may have altered tributary streams by building small dams, irrigation canals and diversions, so steps will be taken to remove these impediments to fish while modernizing these systems by making them more efficient, thereby requiring less water for agriculture and providing more water for fish. Emphasis will be given to stream connectivity to the main stem of the river as the water recedes in certain areas.

The plan for the spawning tributaries includes assessing current condition of each stream. Once that’s done they will identify restoration projects and seek solution that benefits both the landowners and the fishery, especially in the Shasta and Scott River watersheds.

Before the dams are actually removed, some early construction projects will need to get done to make ready for what is coming. They will need to replace the City of Yreka’s water line which now runs along the bottom of Iron Gate Reservoir. Several bridges will need improvements as well as building some structures to help prevent flooding in high-water years. They will also need to relocate and replace the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery. In designing the dam removal plan, interested parties made trips to other sites where dams have been removed to glean information on what worked and what didn’t. 

Once the dams are removed there will be approximately 8,000 acres of land previously under water exposed. A massive restoration project is planned involving the planting of tons of seeds to revegetate the land employing nurseries to get them started in 2023 and 2024. Mitigation for losing “lakefront property” will be available to landowners. 

Another major component of the Klamath dam removal will be advanced scientific studies monitoring every phase of the project. That begins with a full biological assessment of the entire system. Water temperature monitors will be installed throughout the system. Water chemistry and aquatic insects (juvenile fish food) will be monitored before and after the dam removal. They intend to track fish growth and how juvenile fish use all the various parts of the watershed before and after dam removal.

What’s the Time Frame?

There’s an awful lot to do on a fairly tight schedule. If all goes well, the drawdown of water behind the four dams will take place January–March 2023. The drawdown will pause in April while juvenile coho salmon migrate out of the Klamath into the ocean. If there is still water remaining behind any of the dams, the drawdown will resume in Jun 2023 if needed. The actual removal of the dams and powerhouses will begin in June-July, and take six to nine months.

The Unique Klamath River System

The Klamath has been called an “upside-down” river. Most rivers begin as ice-cold, gin-clear streams and end up collecting sediment as they travel downstream ending up in lowland wetlands before entering the ocean. Because of the dams and abundant sediments, the water quality in the upper reaches is terrible. Algae blooms in the various reservoirs have been known to turn the water neon green. As the river makes its way toward the ocean, it is fed by numerous streams with much higher water quality, like the Salmon and Trinity Rivers. The Klamath looks beautiful where it enters the Pacific Ocean.

What About That Sediment?

Thousands of salmon died on the Klamath River in 2002. Photo: Northcoast Environment Center.

There was a lot of concern about the plumes of sediment that will blast through the river once the dams are removed. The river will be temporarily impacted as the sediment makes it way out to the ocean to be dissipated. It’s been calculated that the volume of additional sediment that will be released when the dams come out is roughly equivalent to one year’s-worth of natural sediment transfer. That’s what rivers do. They move sediment downstream 24-7, 365 days per year. Experts agree that the river may be discolored for a time while the sediment moves out. But once that sediment cycles out to sea, the river will have a lot better water quality overall. There is nothing abnormal or unhealthy about the sediments in the Klamath, so the impact of the plume moving downstream should be minimal.

What About the Fishing?

Obviously, the reason this project is happening to begin with has to do with putting more wild salmon and steelhead into the river; so that’s a good thing. We know the project is likely to upset the river in 2023 and 2024, and some of the river be and fish differently than before the removal.

These days fish stack up below Iron Gate Dam in California, and this is a popular spot for anglers and guides. After the project many fish are likely to move farther upstream to just below Keno Dam in Oregon. The project will result in better access to the river, more boat launches in both states. At this point there is very limited access to the river above Copco in the J.C. Boyle and Keno stretches of river, so we can expect this to improve.

Today the J.C. Boyle and Keno stretches are remote and offer wild redband trout. On J.C. Boyle a day of fishing likely includes catching many trout, but they are usually pretty small fish. The Keno stretch has fairly opaque, brown water, some white water, and harbors a lot of really huge wild redband trout. It’s very difficult to fish without floating the river, and boaters should have solid white water skills before even attempting it. Both sections have limited access for wading anglers, and a higher than average population of rattlesnakes.

After dam removal we might expect better water quality throughout the system, and especially in the upper river. Wild salmon and steelhead will eventually be rubbing fins with the non-migratory fish population. Some of the redbands in the upper river will likely stay and adapt to having ocean-going fish in the same river. Others will make their way downstream, and it isn’t inconceivable that some of these redbands will make it all the way down to the ocean and grow huge. The upper river is likely to become really phenomenal fish habitat, which will have a positive impact on the entire fishery.

Bottom line, there will be more fish in the river and much more productive water to fish. Guides are likely to be more spread out, offering everyone a higher-quality fishing experience. 

Major players in the dam removal include Departments of Fish & Wildlife in both California and Oregon. The Yurok Tribe, Trout Unlimited, Pacificorp, Klamath River Renewal Corporation and California Trout are also playing major roles in this endeavor.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.
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