To Free a River

Klamath River tribes have been preparing the river basin for the biggest dam-removal project in the history of the United States.

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.

The Copco 1, Copco 2, JC Boyle (pictured), and Iron Gate hydroelectric dams all sit on the mainstem of the Klamath River, creating problems for fish and the people who depend on them. Image courtesy of KRRC.

Every summer, Microcystis aeruginosa, a blue-green algae that releases a potent liver toxin, blooms in the reservoirs behind Iron Gate (pictured) and Copco 1 dams. It infects the river through ancestral tribal territory and all the way to the estuary. Photo by Resource Environmental Solutions.

Chris Weinstein, a GIS and drone operator for the Karuk Tribe, holds a container of toxic algae alongside Copco Reservoir in the summer of 2020. Photo by Stormy Staats, Klamath-Salmon Media Collaborative.

A century ago, the Klamath River hosted the third most productive salmon runs on the West Coast, as well as runs of steelhead, sturgeon, and lamprey. It was a moveable feast. When lamprey returned to spawn, their carcasses stained the river. Steelhead numbered in the millions. But these once-mighty runs have steadily dwindled. Klamath Basin coho salmon were federally listed as threatened in 1997. The dams cut spring-run Chinook salmon off from most of their spawning grounds; only a few remnant populations remain downstream. The fall run of Chinook is the only commercial salmon run left, and hatchery progeny outnumber wild fish.

“Chinook salmon are one of the most important species that we have as Yurok people, and a keystone species to the entire ecosystem,” says McCovey. Not only has the tribe canceled its commercial fishery several years running, tribal members struggle even to catch enough fish to feed their families.

The river, central to tribal cultural and spiritual well-being, becomes so polluted that no one can enter the water.

The dams create other problems for fish and the people who depend on them. Every summer, a thick green slime blooms in the reservoirs behind Iron Gate and Copco 1 dams. The warm, still water there serves as a perfect incubator for Microcystis aeruginosa, a blue-green algae that releases a potent liver toxin. The algae doesn’t just stay in the reservoir; it flows downstream, infecting the river through ancestral tribal territory and all the way to the estuary.

The river, central to tribal cultural and spiritual well-being, becomes so polluted that no one can enter the water. The warning signs go up in June; sometimes they don’t come down until well after Labor Day. “When you can’t go into the river because you could get sick, it affects our ability to practice our religion. That’s serious,” says McCovey.

A few miles below Iron Gate, the lowest of the Klamath River dams, a fuzzy green carpet coats the riverbed: colonies of polychaetes, or bristleworms, which anchor to hard surfaces with tubes of their own construction. The polychaetes serve as intermediate hosts for the fish parasite, Ceratomyxa shasta, which coevolved with salmon. Fish can tolerate low rates of C. shasta infection, but in the past 20 years, the balance has shifted. Infection and disease rates in both Chinook and coho salmon have soared. Young fish are especially vulnerable. In 2014 and 2015, rates of diseased coho reached 81 and 91 percent, respectively.

This spring’s outbreak, which as of May 4 had impacted 97 percent of the juvenile salmon captured between the Shasta River and Scott River, brings Klamath River salmon closer to the brink of extinction. “The juvenile fish kill will limit salmon production for many years to come,” McCovey says.

Were the dams not trapping it, the sediment borne in the river’s high winter and spring flows would act like sandpaper, physically scraping polychaetes off the bottom. Now, parts of the riverbed below the dams have become “armored” — perfect for polychaete tubes. Fish densities below Iron Gate are also artificially high, thanks to the barrier and the presence of the fish hatchery. “Fish crowding, sediment immobility, and warm temperatures are causing C. shasta to spiral out of control,” says Michael Belchik, senior fisheries biologist for the Yurok Tribe.

For decades, PacifiCorp operated these dams under a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). That license expired in 2006. To receive a new 50-year license from FERC, PacifiCorp would have had to address both fish passage problems on the river and water quality issues throughout the basin. When PacifiCorp and its parent company, Berkshire Hathaway, realized that the cost to meet federal environmental standards would far exceed the cost of removing the dams, the tide began to turn.

In 2010, 40 stakeholder groups signed two landmark agreements — the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement — which included not just a roadmap for removal of the four mainstem dams but plans for largescale restoration. But both agreements died in 2015 when Congress refused to vote to fund them.

A smaller group of 23 stakeholders, including the Karuk and Yurok tribes, revived the dam removal portion of the KHSA in 2016. This agreement does not require congressional approval; instead, it tasks a “dam-removal entity” to oversee the removal and restoration effort. The Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) was formed in 2016 for this express purpose. Dave Meurer, community liaison for the nonprofit, calls it “a small organization with a big budget.” That budget includes $450 million earmarked for dam removal and ecosystem restoration.

KRRC has hired the construction company Kiewit to deconstruct the dams and the habitat restoration firm Resource Environmental Solutions (RES) to take on the massive restoration effort. The latest agreement, signed last November, marks the first time Berkshire Hathaway has “actively and vocally” supported dam removal, says Myers. “They’ve been very reluctant partners that we’ve been dragging along. To have [company representatives] Bill Furman, Greg Abel, and even Warren Buffett himself speak about the importance of dam removal to the tribes, our community, and our economy — that’s a tectonic shift.”

If the process stays on track, drawdown of the four reservoirs will begin in January 2023. By June of that year, the Klamath River will be at historic levels for the first time in over a century. Deconstruction of all four dams will happen in tandem. Then, with the help of the tribes and other partners, RES will embark on the ambitious project to help the river heal.

MEANWHILE, THE TRIBES of the Klamath River have been working tirelessly to restore the river basin, an effort that has extended from its mouth to its headwaters.

In the Lower Klamath Basin, this has meant counteracting the ecological harm caused by logging and road building, particularly on tributary creeks. There, Sarah Beesley, a fisheries biologist who heads up the Lower Klamath Division for Yurok Fisheries, boogers creeks up with engineered “wood jams.” These jumbles used to form naturally when redwood trees fell across creeks. Now, Beesley’s crews create them by wedging entire trees, root wads intact, into rocks, banks, or other natural interlocking geometry. The trees catch large branches, which catch smaller ones, which trap twigs and sediment.

Fisheries biologist Sarah Beesley stands on a “wood jam” she helped build. “It takes several villages to raise salmon,” she says. Photo by Juliet Grable.

Wood jams used to form naturally when redwood trees fell across creeks. Now, Beesley’s crews create them by wedging entire trees into rocks, banks, or other natural interlocking geometry. The trees catch large branches, which catch smaller ones, which trap twigs and sediment. Photo by Juliet Grable.

Elsewhere, her crews have been loading creeks with wood, building structures that mimic beaver dams, and excavating off-channel wetlands — ponds that connect with the main creek channel during high flows. In summer, when creeks dry to a trickle, these pocket ponds are critical to the survival of young fish. “We’re the gateway,” Beesley says. “The best thing we can do is get these Lower Klamath habitats in shape before dam removal, especially for coho.”

“Everybody knows that removing [manmade] barriers is important, but that’s not enough.”

Tribes are supporting fish in the Mid-Klamath, too. According to Toz Soto, fisheries biologist for the Karuk Tribal Fisheries Program, young coho like life in the slow lane. They spend up to a year in freshwater before heading out to sea, seeking refuge from both winter floods and high summer temperatures. Industry and development in the Mid-Klamath’s narrow valleys have left young coho with fewer options. So, in 2010, the Karuk Tribe began partnering with the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC) and private landowners to restore habitat by excavating ponds along tributary creeks.

“Everybody knows that removing [manmade] barriers is important, but that’s not enough,” Soto says. “You have to supply high-quality habitat, too.” These little off-channel reservoirs tap into groundwater, and because they help hold water that would otherwise flow downstream, they also recharge the water table. With the help of PIT tags, tiny electronic devices used to track a fish’s movements, Soto discovered young coho were coming to these ponds from “all over the place,” and in all seasons. “We quickly learned: Build it and they will come,” says Soto.Today, the Karuk Tribe and MKWC work together at 18 different sites in the Mid-Klamath region. “Providing a diversity of habitat types makes fish more resilient,” Soto says.

The Coho Ecology Project, launched in 2007, enabled the PIT tagging and kickstarted collaboration among several groups, including the Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk tribes, MKWC, and Scott River Watershed Council. The groups share information within and across watersheds, learning from each other and helping advance innovative techniques. “It takes several villages to raise salmon,” says Beesley.

Ben Hunsucker of the Yurok Tribe collects seeds from a hillside overlooking the Klamath River. Photo courtesy of RES.

Yolanda Joseph of the Yurok Tribe cleans and sorts native seeds at the Sampson Creek Preserve. Photo courtesy of RES.

This collaborative spirit extends to restoration work in the upper basin. There, drained wetlands, diked streams, and nutrient-rich waters have created challenging conditions not only for salmon, but for resident C’waam and Koptu — Lost River and Shortnose suckers — which spawn in rivers and live their adult lives in the upper Klamath Lake. The upper basin Klamath Tribes are supplementing US Fish and Wildlife efforts by rearing these two federally endangered species and releasing them into the lake when they’re two years old.

“The rearing program is a short-term Band-Aid,” says Mark Buettner, fisheries biologist for the Klamath Tribes. The long-term fix, he says, requires tackling the water quality problem — a task that will require overhauling land-use practices in tandem with habitat restoration.

DAM REMOVAL WON’T SOLVE every problem in the vast Klamath River watershed. Logging continues, albeit at a less destructive pace. Fire suppression, climate change, and poor management combine to heighten the risk of catastrophic wildfires. But the greatest lingering threats are water overallocation and drought.

This year’s projected record-setting drought is queuing up another water crisis in the Klamath Basin. The Yurok Tribe cancelled its commercial fishery for the fifth year in a row, and in May, the Bureau of Reclamation announced the lowest water allocations for the Klamath Project in its history and cancelled a flushing flow that would have benefitted salmon downstream.

The May fish kill underscores the emergency. There is no more time to lose. The dams must come down. When they do, it will be transformative, as the recovery of the Elwha River in Washington State illustrates. Once two large dams on the Elwha were removed in 2012 and 2014, vegetation responded robustly and quickly, surprising ecologists. Summer steelhead, thought to be nearly extinct, rebounded in numbers some called nothing less than miraculous. Counts of spawning Chinook are ticking up, too.

For the tribes, decommissioning the Klamath River dams is key not only to restoring the river and its fish, but all the good things that flow from them: culture, physical health, food security, and spiritual well-being. It is summers spent catching and processing fish and socializing. It is traditions passed from parent to child. It is language. It is prayer. It is existence.

Myers’s two youngest boys, now 7 and 8 years old, have never experienced a seasonal fish camp, where tribal members gather to catch and process salmon. “I hope they’ll grow up the vast majority of their lives with a free-flowing river,” he says. “And when they’re 10 or 12 they will go fishing with me. They’ll have an experience I never had.”

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