FRANKIE JOE MYERS vividly remembers the fall of 2002. Chinook salmon entered the Klamath River estuary in northwest California, as they have done for millennia, but before they could reach their spawning grounds, they began washing up on the banks, dead. Most of the dead fish turned up within the Yurok Indian Reservation, which flanks 44 miles of the Klamath River in Del Norte and Humboldt counties.
Amid the stench of rotting carcasses, members of the Hoopa, Karuk, and Yurok tribes worked with state and federal agencies to tally the dead fish. Agencies acknowledged that the official count of nearly 35,000 was conservative; the true number was likely twice that. It was the largest fish die-off in US history, tied in part to water diversions for irrigation. Low flows failed to cue the spawning fish to swim upstream; instead, they remained crowded near the estuary, enabling the buildup of a deadly parasite, Ichthyophthirius multifiliis, which infects fish gills.
The tribes of the Klamath River had been suffering the effects of diminished fish runs for decades, but this horrifying event shocked them into action like no other, says Myers, who is vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe.
“When the fish kill happened, the reality for a lot of the tribes is that there could be a time when there’s no more salmon in the river,” he says. Stories Myers heard growing up warned of what would happen next. “The River Spirit told my aunt, if there ever comes a day when there’s no more fish in the river, there will be no more need for Yurok people to exist here on Earth.”
Yurok Tribe biologists are once again confronted with a Klamath River full of dead and dying fish.
This May, as the region faced a crippling drought season, Yurok Tribe biologists once again confronted a Klamath River full of dead and dying fish. While conducting their annual disease assessment, they found over 70 percent of the young juvenile Chinook salmon in the traps were dead, victims of the fish parasite Ceratanova shasta. As this issue went to press, biologists predicted the fast-spreading disease would kill nearly all juvenile salmon in the Klamath.
“For salmon people, a juvenile fish kill is an absolute worst-case scenario,” Myers says.
FOG-SOAKED AND FORESTED, the Northern California country at the mouth of the Klamath River still feels wild. The coastline is rugged and rocky, the terrain steep. Every winter, chunks of Highway 101 threaten to slide into the sea, and the few towns feel dwarfed by the landscape. But if you know where to look, you can witness the legacy of industrial-scale extraction and development. Mossy-trunked alders line the banks where redwoods once towered. Roads have cut creeks off from their floodplains and logging has starved them of natural logjams, so vital for slowing the flow. But the most disturbing sign that all is not well is an absence: In creeks that once pulsed with abundance, young fish are few and far between.
Many factors have contributed to the decline of salmon in the Klamath River: decades of logging, overallocation of water to ranches and farms, extreme drought, climate change. But the biggest culprit, the most constant disturbance, is the presence of four hydroelectric dams on the main stem of the Klamath River. These dams have been blocking salmon and other anadromous fish — those that spawn in freshwater but spend most of their life at sea — from over 400 miles of freshwater habitat for over a century. The dams have degraded water quality, fostering toxic algae blooms and fish pathogens that have contributed to massive fish kills.
The largest single action that could benefit the river — and the fish that rely on it — would be to take down the dams.
For years, hundreds of individuals and dozens of organizations have rallied around the cause of dam removal, sounding the alarm over plummeting fish populations and pointing to the centrality of salmon to the local ecology, culture, and economy.
But none have worked so tirelessly as the tribes of the Klamath Basin — the Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk of the Lower and Mid Klamath, and the Klamath Tribes in the Upper Basin — who rely on the river and its fish for physical and spiritual sustenance. Tribal members have staged protests. They have testified and litigated. They have traveled to dam-operator PacifiCorp’s corporate headquarters in Portland and Nebraska and as far as Scotland to make their case. All the while, they’ve been engaged in cutting-edge science and river restoration, in anticipation of the day the dams will come down.
“We have ceremonies that are intended to maintain balance,” says Barry McCovey, senior fisheries biologist for Yurok Tribal Fisheries Program, which studies, manages, and restores fish in the Klamath River basin. “Now we’re in this world that’s completely out of balance. Our job isn’t just to maintain balance — it’s to restore it.”
The tribes’ efforts are paying off. With a new agreement signed last November by the Karuk and Yurok tribes, the nonprofit Klamath River Renewal Corporation, PacifiCorp, and the states of California and Oregon, the largest dam removal project in US history is closer to reality than it has ever been. This past winter, I travelled the Klamath to discover what’s at stake for the sprawling watershed, to learn about tribe-led restoration efforts, and to imagine what a free-flowing Klamath River might one day look like.
KEITH PARKER, FISHERIES BIOLOGIST for the Yurok Tribe, describes rivers as circuits of energy. Water and sediment flow downstream. Anadromous fish — salmon, steelhead, sturgeon — flow both downstream and upstream, carrying vital marine-derived nutrients to stream reaches hundreds of miles from the ocean.
Dams break the circuit much like taking a pair of scissors to an electrical cord, Parker says. “We can’t measure the price that’s been paid to not have that connectivity.”
In the case of the Klamath — which runs 253 miles from the high desert in Southern Oregon to the Pacific Ocean in Northern California — the hard break in the circuit can be pinned to 1912, when construction of the Copco 1 dam first cut fish off from over 50 miles of main stem river and dozens of tributary rivers and creeks.
Well before then, fur traders and gold miners paved the way for White pioneers who settled throughout the Klamath Basin, displacing Native Americans and dispossessing them of their land. In the arid Upper Basin, farmers dug the first diversion ditch in 1878. By 1905, demand for irrigation prompted the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project, a network of dams, irrigation ditches, and canals feeding a patchwork of farms and ranches straddling the Oregon-California border.
The Klamath Hydroelectric Project eventually included seven electricity-generating facilities along the Klamath and its tributaries. In total, the project generates enough electricity to power 70,000 homes. Four of the project’s hydroelectric dams — Copco 1, Copco 2, JC Boyle, and Iron Gate — sit on the main stem of the Klamath. None of these dams are used for flood control or supply water for agriculture. None but JC Boyle have fish ladders.
These four dams have taken a grave toll on the river and its fish.