What Would the Removal of the Klamath Dams Look Like? Here’s a Lesson from the Largest Dam Removal in U.S. History

Copco Dam on the Klamath River. Photo: California Trout

While the proposal to remove four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River continues to move forward, the actual implementation of the program has come into question. How will we remove the dams? How long will it take to restore the ecosystem? Will spawning fish return immediately?

The project will become the largest dam removal in the history of the United States, beating out a large dam removal project that occurred in the state of Washington in 2012. Today, we can look at the project done by our PNW neighbors of the north to see what the removal of the Klamath Dams could look like.

Restoring Elwha

Photo by Richard Probst

The two hydroelectric dams on Washington’s Elwha River were removed 6 years ago to revive the fish populations in the beautiful river feeding the Pacific Ocean. The dams were no longer providing large amounts of electricity (especially compared to more modern methods) and had many negative impacts on the health of the watershed.

Sound familiar? The Elwha’s dam removal project was the first of its kind and can show us exactly what the Klamath might look like under a similar project.

While the removal of Elwha’s dams were initially concocted to allow fish passage and revive the salmon populations, the area witnessed many more positive outcomes than they bargained for. Just a couple of years after the dams were removed, sediment and wood were rushed down to the ocean after 100 years of build up. The beaches on the ocean at the mouth of the river were completely altered, illustrating the immense healing power of nature. Due to this flush of the system, the kelt and eel grass beds were restored, returning the natural habitat for the marine wildlife to the area.

The fish rushed back into the river immediately, with sightings of Chinook and Coho salmon, trout and steelhead in the river system upon removal. With the spawning fish unable to return to the original spawning grounds for 100 years, it was almost as if they were sitting there waiting for passage once again.

The spawning salmon breathed new life into the watershed, with their rotting carcasses providing nutrients and food to the system following their spawn. This brought insects, birds, elk and otters back into the area and the dirt formally sitting in the reservoirs above the dams were quickly restored for wildlife with 300,000 plants and thousands of pounds of seed.

Here is a quick glimpse of the recovery of the Elwha River:

The Klamath is Next

Copco Dam on the Klamath River. Photo: California Trout

Opposition voices to the Klamath dam removal project are growing quiet as people begin to realize the dams are causing more harm than good. While the process remains in a bureaucratic standstill, the project seems inevitable and it will completely revitalize a river that is wildly underrated for its beauty and tourism opportunities in California’s Far North.

The dams are currently operated by Warren Buffet’s company PacificCorp, following a partial transfer of ownership of the four lower dams from PacifiCorp, who have owned them since 1956, to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. For years Pacificorp refused to consider removing the dams. It was only after they looked ahead and began to contemplate what it would cost to upgrade the dams for fish passage. Long story short, it didn’t pencil out. It became obvious that it would be cheaper to just remove them.

Thousands of salmon died on the Klamath River in 2002. Photo: Northcoast Environment Center.

The argument behind removing dams is nuanced. There are well over 1,000 dams in California, some more than a century old. Most dams were erected to establish critical water supply, but also for hydroelectric power generation and flood control. If Shasta and Keswick Dams in Shasta County were removed, towns like Redding could literally be washed away during spring flooding season.

But the Klamath Dams were built specifically for the purpose of generating electricity, a practice that has since been modernized by more efficient energy providers. The dams provide no irrigation diversions, no drinking water, and almost no flood control benefit. Managing the aging structures today costs more than they’re worth.

When the removal of the dams occur, the revival of the watershed will be immediate, with fish passages making way to the restructuring of the area due to sediment flushing. It will create an outdoor utopia not seen in the area for over 100 years.

The Science Behind Dams

Oroville Dam. Photo: Department of Water Resources

Dams degrade water quality. They also block the rich nutrients brought into the habitat by spawning anadromous fish. The salmon and steelhead using our rivers for spawning have traveled and fed in thousands of miles of ocean water from as far away as Canada, Alaska or even Russia. When they die after spawning these exotic nutrients supercharge the ecosystem benefiting all forms of life. The reservoirs behind dams warm and broaden the river corridor often providing warm water habitat for destructive non-native species. Even though many dams provide fish ladders allowing passage over the dams, they are largely statistical failures. For reasons known only to the fish, many fish will not use them. This creates a large pod of fish below the dams that will never spawn. The dams also give piscivorous species (fish that eat other fish) like pikeminnows a terrific opportunity to dine on salmon and steelhead smolts that will never make it to the ocean.

Dam removal is about much more than restoring endangered fish populations. If you consider the fact that everything in an ecosystem is connected, you realize you cannot alter one aspect of a river without impacting everything else. Once streams are returned to their natural states, they are able to cleanse themselves, wash out all the sediments that smother aquatic plants, insects and fish. Improved water quality also impacts everything from associated wetlands (and the life sustained there) to coastal beaches and estuaries. 

So, you think California has a dam problem? We are far from alone. According the the US Army Corps of Engineers, there are over 80,000 dams three feet or greater in this country. California is on the cutting edge of a national movement for dam removal where the benefits outweigh the costs for retrofitting century-old structures built in an age where we thought we had an endless supply of good habitat.

As the dam removal project on the Klamath River continues to move forward at a snails pace, think of the opportunity that lies ahead for its watershed. If you’re having trouble imagining such an oasis, just look at the Elwha.

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

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