Last Major Hurdle Cleared for Removal of the Klamath River Dams

Copco Dam on the Klamath River. Photo: California Trout

The last major milestone has been cleared in the journey to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. The dam removal project will be the largest ever in the United States and create 300 miles of spawning habitat for native salmon species.

On November 17, the final License Surrender Order for the Lower Klamath River Hydroelectric Project was been issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The project license will now be transferred to the states of Oregon and California, along with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. The dam removal will begin in early 2023 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

Not only is this a major victory for salmon conservation, it will help restore the river that is so crucial to local Native American tribes.

“It’s been incredible for CalTrout to join forces with a multitude of Tribal Nations, conservation organizations, governments, and commercial and sport fishing interests in support of taking the Klamath dams out,” said Curtis Knight, Executive Director of California Trout. “Tribal leadership has been a central component of this effort. Notably, the Yurok, Karuk and Klamath River Tribes have been leading the effort to restore part of their cultural heritage and subsistence fishing. With the Klamath River being the second largest river in California, it represents a huge opportunity to achieve native wild salmon and steelhead abundance in a way that we haven’t seen for many decades.”

The Upper Klamath-Trinity Rivers spring-run Chinook salmon was once the most abundant run on the river. Today, less than 3% remain in large part because the lower Klamath dams block access to prime historical salmon habitat in the Upper Klamath Basin. With the dams no longer in place, more than 300 miles of spawning and rearing habitat will once again become available to native fish.

Opposition voices to the Klamath dam removal project are growing quiet as people begin to realize the dams are causing more harm than good. While the process remains in a bureaucratic standstill, the project seems inevitable and it will completely revitalize a river that is wildly underrated for its beauty and tourism opportunities in California’s Far North.

The dams were once operated by Warren Buffet’s company PacificCorp. For years Pacificorp refused to consider removing the dams. It was only after they looked ahead and began to contemplate what it would cost to upgrade the dams for fish passage to adhere to modern-day laws. Long story short, it didn’t pencil out. It became obvious that it would be cheaper to just remove them.

The argument behind removing dams is nuanced. There are well over 1,000 dams in California, some more than a century old. Most dams were erected to establish critical water supply, but also for hydroelectric power generation and flood control. If Shasta and Keswick Dams in Shasta County were removed, towns like Redding could literally be washed away during spring flooding season.

But the Klamath Dams were built specifically for the purpose of generating electricity, a practice that has since been modernized by more efficient energy providers. The dams provide no irrigation diversions, no drinking water, and almost no flood control benefit. Managing the aging structures today costs more than they’re worth.

When the removal of the dams occur, the revival of the watershed will be immediate, with fish passages making way to the restructuring of the area due to sediment flushing. It will create an outdoor utopia not seen in the area for over 100 years.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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