The Largest-Ever Dam Demolition Will Restore Salmon Habitat

Four aging dams are slated to be removed from the Klamath River beginning as soon as next year

A dam
Copco 1 dam, one of the four that will be demolished California State Water Board staff via ca.gov

Four aging dams will be destroyed along the Klamath River in California and Oregon, restoring hundreds of miles of historical salmon habitat and improving the health of the river.

Native American tribes and environmentalists have been fighting for the $500 million demolition proposal for years, and in November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved it, Gillian Flaccus reports for the Associated Press (AP). The project is slated to begin next year, and the biggest removals will likely take place in 2024.

“The Klamath River has been Exhibit A for how dams, drought, imbalanced water management and climate change can strangle a river,” Chrysten Rivard, Oregon director for Trout Unlimited, says in a statement. “Now, the Klamath is poised to become a prime example of how an entire river system, and the people and wildlife that depend on it, can be renewed.”

The four dams slated for removal—Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and JC Boyle—produce enough electricity to power 70,000 homes when running at full capacity. But the dams rarely reach that level of production, because the river’s water level is low, per the AP. Owned by the utility PacifiCorp, the dams only contribute 2 percent of the company’s power supply.

Additionally, the utility had been facing the prospect of paying hundreds of millions for updates—including fish screens and ladders—to meet environmental regulations that weren’t in effect when the dams were built. So, with these potential costs surpassing that of the demolition, PacifiCorp agreed to the project. 

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” Joseph James, chairman of the Yurok tribe, said in a statement after FERC’s vote, per High Country News’ B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster. “The people have earned this victory, and with it, we carry on our sacred duty to the fish that have sustained our people since the beginning of time.”

Opponents of the demolition worry about flooding, decreased property values and whether the action will truly benefit salmon, among other concerns. The dams also generate tax revenue that the rural Siskiyou County relies on, Brandon Criss, board of supervisors chairman in the county, tells Cassandra Profita of Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). 

“This is seen in many respects as a grand experiment. We’re gonna try it and see if it works,” Criss tells OPB. “Our concern is it won’t. And then if it doesn’t work, we have all the problems, but none of the solutions, and we’re left holding the bag.”

Desiree Tullos, a biological engineer at Oregon State University who is part of a research team with the Yurok Tribe, tells the broadcasting network that while dam removal projects often spark concern about sediment and flooding, those problems rarely transpire. 

Chinook salmon numbers in the Klamath have declined more than 90 percent since the early 20th century, and other native fish have dwindled, too, wrote Audrey Carleton and Briana Flin for The Nation in August. Climate change played a role, as warmer water in the river has allowed parasites to thrive. Debris from wildfires has also killed tens of thousands of fish. And the dams have intensified water warming, algal blooms and stagnation. In 2021, spring Chinook salmon were listed as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act. 

Often reaching 3 feet long and weighing more than 30 pounds—with the biggest measuring 4.9 feet and weighing 129 pounds—these fish are larger than any other Pacific salmon. They are considered an important food and cultural resource for the tribes living in the region. 

“The tribes here—this includes the Yurok, the Karuk, the Hoopa, the Shasta, the Klamath tribes—they were salmon people,” Craig Tucker, natural resources policy advocate for the Karuk Tribe, tells Hayley Smith of the Los Angeles Times. “Salmon were part of their subsistence, part of their culture, part of their spiritual life, and so losing those fish has a lot of consequences. Some of it is just nutrition and health, but some of it is really a loss of cultural identity. Removing these dams will reverse those trends and make sure that salmon survive into the future, and that these tribal cultures continue to survive into the future.”