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Breaking Ground for Klamath Dam Removal

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Klamath River Renewal Project Vicinity Map.
Klamath River Renewal Project Vicinity Map. Image from Klamath River Renewal Corporation.

Construction activity has begun along the banks of the Klamath River, in preparation for the largest dam removal effort in US history. Currently, the restoration team is building access roads, and basic infrastructure necessary to facilitate the removal of the four hydroelectric dams. The first dam, Copco 2, will come down late summer, early fall, and the other three are slated for removal in 2024. The Klamath Basin encompasses more than 15,000 square miles, and the Karuk, Yurok, Shasta, Klamath and Modoc people have lived alongside the river and subsisted off its fisheries since time immemorial. It is rumored that you could once walk across the Klamath on the backs of salmon.

Spring Chinook salmon.
Spring Chinook salmon. Photo by Amber Jamieson.

Steelhead, Chinook and coho salmon have historically sustained commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries, but since the first dam was built in 1918, some of the best salmon spawning habitat has become inaccessible to salmon, and fish passage ladders were never installed. Spring Chinook “springers” were once the dominant fish run in the Klamath River, swimming upstream into the highest reaches of the watershed, when spring delivers an abundance of snow melt, flows are high, and water is cold. Once the Klamath Dams were built, they cut off springers from accessing the best habitat in the basin, and since then, their populations have plummeted to two percent of historic populations.

Photo by Shane Anderson / Swiftwater Films.

The outdated dams provide no irrigation diversions, drinking water and negligible flood control benefits, and they generate less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s power portfolio. With no fish ladder on any of the lower three dams, the structures deny salmon access to hundreds of miles of historical spawning and rearing habitat. The dams disrupt transport of sediment, heat reservoir water and create toxic algae blooms, resulting in lethal conditions for fish. In 2002, toxic water conditions combined with water mismanagement resulted in a catastrophic fish kill of an estimated 70,000 adult salmon that died before spawning. In response, tribal members and river communities started a grassroots campaign to undam the Klamath. After years of protests, lawsuits and direction, an agreement was reached in 2016 to remove the dams.

Skewered salmon cooking over an open fire.
Traditional salmon on sticks. Photo by Amber Jamieson.

Klamath salmon are critical to commercial and recreational fisheries throughout the region, supporting thousands of jobs and bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars to our communities, but Klamath salmon runs have been in a steady decline, and fishing closures are devastating for the tribes, river communities and the fishing industry. For the first time since 2008, on March 10th of this year, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council proposed the closure of commercial and recreational salmon fisheries from Mexico to Oregon due to low abundance. The Council will make an official decision on the salmon closure at its April 1-7 meeting to determine the extent of the closures. Hopefully this closure will give the salmon runs the break they need to recover and repopulate the Klamath Basin after dam removal.

Below is a short film called Restoring Balance, by Swiftwater Films in partnership with Resource Environmental Solutions, about the Klamath dam removal and restoration project, as well as a project timeline and frequently asked questions.

Timeline and Milestones Pertaining to Klamath Dam Removal

1855 The Yurok Reservation was created by executive order that vested the Tribe’s federally reserved fishing and water rights.

1864 Klamath Tribes sign a treaty that includes salmon fishing rights.

1918 Copco 1 Dam becomes operational, effectively cutting the Klamath River in half and blocking salmon from reaching the Upper Klamath Basin.

1925 Copco 2 Dam becomes operational.

1958 Big Bend Dam – later known as J.C. Boyle Dam – is completed.

1962 Iron Gate Dam is completed.

1983 U.S. v. Adair upholds Klamath Basin Tribes’ right to enough in-stream water to support fishing and hunting on former reservation lands but does not quantify the amount of water.

1997 Coho salmon in the Klamath are listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

2000 PacifiCorp begins federal relicensing process for the Klamath Hydroelectric Project Dams.

2002 The federal government reverses its decision to curtail irrigation diversions to protect fisheries and allows farmers to divert more water from the Klamath River than was recommended by federal scientists. As many as 70,000 salmon die before spawning in the lower Klamath River because of low flows.

2004 PacifiCorp files a dam license application with FERC and includes no provisions for fish passage around dams or for dam removal.

2004 Tribes, fishermen, and NGOs go to Scotland to demand dam removal from PacifiCorp parent company Scottish Power.

2005 Scottish Power sells PacifiCorp to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Energy.

2006 The Karuk Tribe reports that blooms of toxic algae in reservoirs exceed World Health Organization guidelines by nearly 4,000-fold. 700 miles of coastline is closed to commercial salmon harvests because of low returns to the Klamath; many commercial fishermen go bankrupt amid protests. PacifiCorp’s second federal license to operate the dams expires, forcing PacifiCorp to rely on annual one-year extensions while deciding whether or not to retrofit them to modern standards or decommission them.

2007 The California Energy Commission concludes that Klamath dam removal is even more favorable for PacifiCorp customers than relicensing. Environmental analysis required by federal regulators concludes that relicensing dams under prescribed terms and conditions would result in a project that operated at a $20 million annual deficit.

2008 Tribes, fishermen and conservationists protest Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. The EPA lists Klamath as “impaired” by toxic algae.

2009 Oregon Governor Kulongoski signs SB76 into law, which allows for $180 million to

be collected from PacifiCorp customers for purposes of dam removal.

2010 After eight years of negotiation, a broad group of parties sign the first iteration of the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement and a companion agreement that set the terms for widespread environmental restoration (the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, or KBRA). The agreements called for a process that would have avoided FERC review and approval and required Congressional approval before they expired in 2015.

2011 California PUC approves collection of $20 million from PacifiCorp ratepayers for purposes of dam removal.

2015 Congress fails to pass legislation then necessary to implement the Klamath Settlement Agreements.

2016 A subset of the parties to the 2010 KHSA sign the Amended KHSA, which outlined a process by which PacifiCorp would transfer the four lower dams to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC). This process eliminated the need for Congressional approval and defaulted to the standard FERC process for decommissioning hydroelectric facilities.

2016 PacifiCorp and KRRC file the License Transfer Application and License Surrender Application with FERC.

2020 In response to FERC concerns, Parties further amend the KHSA such that the States of Oregon and California become co-licensees upon the acceptance of transfer of the federal hydroelectric license, for the purposes of providing a financial backstop to KRRC during dam removal and restoration.

2022 FERC issues a License Surrender Order for the four lower Klamath dams.

2023 Pre-dam removal construction begins. Copco 2 dam will be removed.

2024 Copco 1, J.C. Boyle and Iron Gate reservoirs will be drained and dams and appurtenant facilities will be removed. Resource Environmental Solutions (RES) begins restoration activities in earnest.

2025 RES will continue implementing and monitoring restoration activities.


Why is the removal of the four lower Klamath dams being called the largest dam removal in US history?

The roughly simultaneous removal of the four dams that constitute the Lower Klamath Project, with a combined height of 411 feet, makes it the largest dam removal project in United States history.

What happens after the dams are removed?

The ecological restoration of the soon-to-be-exposed reservoir bottoms will begin as soon as the drawdown is complete (anticipated spring or early summer of 2024). Resource Environmental Solutions, the organization tasked with restoring the project area, will prioritize revegetating the area with appropriate native species. More than 11 billion native seeds have been collected and propagated in anticipation of this project. All sites will be monitored for several years to ensure revegetation success, oversee the control of invasive species, and take other necessary actions to restore the landscape.

How will the earth and concrete from the dams be disposed of?

At Iron Gate Dam, much of the earthen material will be placed where the material was first excavated to build the dam. Much of the material at JC Boyle Dam will be used to fill a gigantic scour hole, which is an unnatural, unsightly and even dangerous feature of the JC Boyle Dam. Some earth will be deposited on the slopes of the JC Boyle reservoir footprint. All the reservoirs will be extensively revegetated. Material that is not suitable for fill will go to various landfill sites where tipping fees will be paid on waste material.

Is the sediment built up behind the dams toxic?

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) found that there are NO significant toxins in those sediments above and beyond natural background levels. ODEQ also concluded that most of the sediments released through the dam removal process will be naturally washed through the system to the sea within about 24 months. The sediment composition is predominantly dead algae and fine material.

ODEQ’s analysis of the sediment loads expected from removal of the J.C. Boyle dam concludes that impacts to fish will be both short-term and minor, compared to the long-term gains expected from the project. The California State Water Resources Control Board reached similar conclusions when it issued a Clean Water Permit (401) for the Klamath dam removal project.

How is this project funded?

The project is fully funded, with $450 million available from two funding sources. The first source of project funding is PacifiCorp customer surcharges of $200 million. The second source of funding is up to $250 million in Proposition 1 water bond funds (with any excess funds being returned to the State). The States of California and Oregon and PacifiCorp have agreed to provide additional contingency funds if needed to ensure the successful completion of the project.

How will the power lost through dam removal be replaced?

The four dams slated for removal produce less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s power portfolio. PacifiCorp’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which maps out resource procurement over the next twenty years, describes a strategy of increased energy efficiency, investment in renewable energy sources, modest natural gas investment, and major coal retirements (3,600 MW). In this plan, PacifiCorp assumed that Klamath hydroelectric facilities would be decommissioned in 2020. The California State Water Resources Control Board concluded in the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that dam removal is not expected to significantly increase carbon emissions, either directly (from deconstruction work) or indirectly (from replacement power) and it will not conflict with state policies capping carbon missions or requiring certain quantities of renewables.

For more information, check out this media kit that key players in the Klamath Dam Removal effort have assembled, which includes additional resources pertaining to Klamath dam removal.


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