The Klamath Dam removals and our interview with American Rivers

We look at the progress made on the Klamath Dam removal project and interview American Rivers for insight on this project and ongoing river restorations.

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The Klamath Dam removals and our interview with American Rivers

The largest river restoration in US history just took its first major step this summer. Copco Two was one of four dams along the main stem of the Klamath River, which runs from Oregon through northern California and out to sea. 

The removal of the dams is estimated to have a huge, positive, impact on local fish populations, especially native salmon and steelhead. 

Basic facts and timelines

Four dams along the Klamath River, which runs from Oregon into northwestern California, are scheduled to be removed in 2023 and 2024 – Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, Iron Gate, and JC Boyle. 

June 2023 – The removal of Copco No. 2, the smallest of the dams, begins.   

September 2023 – Full removal of Copco No. 2 and its related concrete infrastructure to be completed. 

January 2024 – Reservoir drawdown begins for Iron Gate, Copco 1, and JC Boyle and will continue through the spring. Once drawdown is completed, dam removal and lakebed restoration activities will begin. 

Between 650,000 and one million anadromous fish (living in both fresh and saltwater) historically ran up the Klamath. In 2022, however, fish and wildlife officials recorded merely 46,639 native fall-run salmon coming up the Klamath River.

Ann Willis is the California Regional Director for American Rivers, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving rivers across the U.S.

Fishbrain caught up with Willis and American Rivers to discuss the initial stages of Dam removal on the Klamath and their expectations going forward.

Q&A with Ann Willis of American Rivers

FB: A lot of news regarding salmon and steelhead is doom and gloom. Can you explain why this is a ray of hope to help people keep fighting?

AW: This is a ray of hope, but I love that image. A ray is part of a larger sun, so realizing that dam removal is the first step is important to keep in mind. But it is a critical step that allows all restoration to be successful. Not only were the dams blocking access to the main stem, but it was damaging the quality of the habitat downstream.

FB: How was Copco #2 (the first dam) removed?

AW: The way it works is very thoughtful. Removing a dam can be as much a disturbance as building one. When you think of dam removal it's not just taking away concrete and dam removal but how do we minimize the impact on anadromous fish. Copco 2 went out with heavy machinery. 

FB: How will the next three be removed?

AW: The next part of the process is the final three. They are trickier. They want to use the dams to remove the sediment behind the dams. The reservoirs are in the process of being filled. Tunnels are being drilled behind the dams. Early 2024 dynamite will be placed in tunnels and blown up. The massive release of water will remove the sediment backed up.

Then in summer heavy machinery will remove the rest of the remaining infrastructure.

FB: How exactly was American Rivers involved in this endeavor?

AW: Our involvement deepend about 20 years ago. We were inspired by the tribal advocacy work and as the largest river restoration group in the company we were able to help inform from expertise.

Our experience on the Penobscot removal in Maine, specifically helped bring expertise to this issue.

FB: Is this initial release (or the future releases in winter) going to have an effect on this year’s salmon and steelhead populations negative, or positive? (cold water vs silt flowing downstream)

AW: There is going to be an impact. Minimizing the impact still means there will be an impact. The amount of sediment stored behind the dams is equal to one year of sediment that moves down the Klamath. This river has actually been sediment starved for over a century. 

Organic material like algae will be transported as well and decay. The toxic algae blooms have been a problem within the dams. 

FB: I remember living in California and you'd see “undam the Klamath” bumper stickers in the 90s. How many years has it taken to achieve this goal?

AW: This project has been ongoing since the dams were proposed for construction. There were many native tribes in the area that knew what the river meant for salmon which were a culturally important food source.

20 years ago the movement picked up steam, but it was all built on the momentum and advocacy of the tribes.

FB: How contagious do you think this project can be?

AW: I think this project is so important because of the example it sets. These dams were really focused on producing hydropower but they were not producing it in an environmentally safe way or in a cost effective way. Pacific Corp had an interest in moving to renewable energy anyways. It's not that we have a problem with energy, it's just finding solutions like these that support people and the environment. 

We underestimate how quick a river responds to the freeing of a dam. This removal is unprecedented and what we can take part of is seeing this success. The fastest way to heal a river is by removing a dam. Having an example we can look towards is an example that gives us faith that there are actions we can take to address the biggest crisis of our generation.

FB: What are some other river’s American Rivers are looking to free?

AW: 30,000 dams across the US by 2050. Not just dams like on the Klamath, but any bank to bank barrier blocking a river. US has 100,000 dams that are out of date.

We (US) are very good at building dams, but we are very bad at maintaining them. A lot of the dams we are looking to remove are deadbeat dams that aren't producing anything and are too expensive to bring them up to a manageable level. These are dams that serve no useful purpose to people, or rivers. This is about being practical about managing money and spending it on projects in the right places as well. It's the right time for this kind of work. 

FB: Will loose dam materials have any negative effects on water quality (other than silt build up. More like concrete)

AW: The plan is to remove all infrastructure. No feasible way to capture every piece of concrete but the plan in place is being done with a mind to minimize the amount. 

FB: This is a huge step in restoring native fish populations, but it feels like it can’t be the only step. What else is there that needs to be done to restore what many consider the greatest fish species in the world?

AW: So removing the dam is the first step and there's more to be done after. Once we remove the dams work needs to be done to restore the footprint of the reservoir. Tribes are gathering seeds of culturally native plants to reseed the area of the reservoir. Other projects are about working with the agriculture community to help improve water diversion, how we can leave more water to do habitat restoration and working with agriculture farms to use more groundwater and less river water. 

Restoring upper Klamath lake wetlands is going on and upslope work to address issues like forestry and fuels that can have a secondary relationship with the rivers. Fires are causing mudslides and sediment into the rivers. Headwaters are where rivers are born so we are starting them out better.

Stay tuned as Fishbrain will cover the rest of the dam removal process this winter.

Now let's go fishing. We'll bring the dam removal equipment.

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