Breaking Ground for Klamath Dam Removal
Updated: Mar 28
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.
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.
The outdated dams provide no irrigation diversions, drinking water and negligible flood control benefits, and they generate less than 2% of PacifiCorp’s power portfolio.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.
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.