Featured News, Siskiyou

River of Death – Collapse of the Klamath River Ecosystem

Cover Image: The tens of millions of yards of polluted mud-flats that remain in the now drained Klamath lakes (Copco and Iron Gate Lakes) portend a future of catastrophic pollution down river for decades. Photo: William E. Simpson II

Let’s face facts; some people are getting richer off the removal of the Klamath River dams. 

Glen Spain member [formerly] of Klamath River Renewal Corp. ‘KRRC’ board and fisherman’s advocate said “Economics Not Salmon Is the Reason PacifiCorp is Removing the Dams”


It is now estimated by some experts that the total direct cost for the Klamath River dam removal project, will reach $800-million dollars, not the $450-million cost estimate projected over tens years ago. 

And then we have the costs related to the liabilities that are already arising from what is seen by many as an ill-fated project. 

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (‘FERC’), Oregon and California taxpayers are also on the hook for costs, including over-runs and liabilities:

See Item 75: https://www.ferc.gov/media/h-1-p-2082-063

“FERC Project Nos. 2082-063 and 14803-001-30 As we explained in the June 17 Transfer Order, we continue to find that the $450 million should be sufficient, based on the independent Board of Consultants’ prior review. Additionally, PacifiCorp and the States have committed to creating an additional $45 million contingency fund, and stated that any cost overruns beyond the amount of the contingency fund would be shared equally by PacifiCorp and the States. If the States [CA & OR] and the Renewal Corporation accept the transfer and become co-licensees, they will jointly and severally share the liabilities associated with project decommissioning and be bound by the license as if they were the original licensees.”

Understanding Sedimentation and Sediments in Copco and Iron Gate Lakes:

Our region of Northern California and Southern Oregon is rich in naturally occurring minerals in the mountains and valleys. Some of these minerals are deadly toxins to various organisms, wildlife and humans. Fish and mollusks (filer feeders) are known to concentrate heavy metals into their bodies, rendering them toxic as potential food sources for humans of animals.

Some of the minerals that have been catalogued and measured by the U.S. Geologic Survey, include toxic heavy metals, including chromium, lead and arsenic among others. Even in tiny amounts, these heavy metals can cause serious health impacts, cancer and even death if ingested via water or plant and animal products containing these pollutants in their tissues or milk. Contact with these metals can also cause serious skin conditions.

The science of heavy metal toxicity:Toxicity, mechanism and health effects of some heavy metals

Over time, the impacts of water eroding and leaching-out minerals from naturally occurring deposits create mineral sediments, which can then be carried down streams and into our rivers, including the Klamath River. Gold miners understand this process very well. 

When the fast moving waters of a river that is transporting tons of these sediments down-river come to place where the river widens and slows, or to a lake, the velocity of the water slows and the sediments can then settle-out of the water and go to the bottom of the lake. 

Sediment Removal Techniques for Reservoir Sustainability

When there are heavy metals contained in the sediments being transported and settled in a lake, over time these heavy metals can become very highly concentrated in the sediments that have settled to the bottom of a lake.  Science and logic suggest that Copco Lake has been concentrating heavy metal sediments for 106-years, and Iron Gate Lake has been concentrating heavy metal sediments for about 60-years. Included with these metals, are the additional concentrations of anthropogenic and natural nitrates and phosphates.

The U.S. Geologic Service (USGS) had conducted extensive sampling and testing of water and sediments in the Klamath River basin including below Iron Gate Dam in 2018.  

That USGS data is found online (Excel Spreadsheet & PDF) at this link: https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/file/get/6585c75fd34eff134d4354d3

On Tuesday January 23, 2024, millions of tons of sediments were released from Copco 1 Dam and Iron Gate Dams into the Klamath River.  

According to Klamath River Renewal Corporation (‘KRRC’) CEO Mark Bransom, approximately 5-7 millions yards of sediments were released into the main-stem of the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam 

(See Bransom presentation via YouTube below and William Simpson’s response following)

Klamath River Renewal Corporation: SISKIYOU BOARD Of SUPERVISORS February 13, 2024 SPECIAL MEETING

In the graph below, we compare the 2018 USGS heavy metals/mineral sampling results taken from just below Iron Gate Dam to a recent sample of Klamath River water taken from below Iron Gate Dam at the Klamathon Bridge.

The sample taken from the Klamath River at the Klamath Bridge was collected on January 28, 2024, five days after dams were breached and sediments released, by residents living near the bridge.

(Note: the author of this article had no involvement with collection of samples or with Neilson Research Corporation’s processing of sample or payment. Author redacted name of client from sample report at the request of the resident).

The January 28th (2024) water sample was tested by Neilson Research Corporation in Medford Oregon, and results were released directly to said residents on February 9, 2024. In the comparison (graph below) we find that since dams were breached on January 23, 2024, and a fraction of the many tens of millions of yards of sediments were released, there has been a significant spike in the levels of several toxic metals in the water of the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam.

Bar graph courtesy Mr. Jay Martin

The January 28, 2024 Klamathon Bridge Sampling – Report via Neilson Research Corporation:

The Dead Zone:

This release of the sediments from Copco and Iron Gate dams coincides with a massive die-off of both non-native and native species of organisms in the Lakes and in the Klamath River, including microscopic organisms, insect larvae and invertebrates that form the foundation of the food-chain in the river. 

Dead and dying Klamath River crayfish. Photo: courtesy Lindsay Rhea

River gauges down-river from the breached dams showed zero (0) dissolved oxygen for days. The only organisms that arguably survived and will take full advantage of such an event are the anaerobic organisms

The Klamath River became a classic ‘dead zone‘ and even the heartiest creatures, such as the native Klamath River crayfish and sculpin were decimated among millions of fish killed, including trout, sucker fish, sturgeon and others in the lakes and down river. Coastal mollusks will be inundated with these toxin carrying sediments.

Tens of thousands of fish, including threatened and rare species lay dead on the exposed clay-mud lake bottoms.  Photo: William E. Simpson II

For many decades, the phosphorous and nitrates coming down the Klamath River from Klamath Lake and the Klamath Basin were being mitigated by the blue-green algae living in Copco and Iron Gate lakes. And via the life-cycles of these algae, phosphorous and nitrates were sequestered in the clay-mud deposits on the lake bottoms. The release of the sediments containing concentrated phosphates and nitrates that had been sequestered in clay-mud and into the Klamath River, adversely impacted the water quality on the River. And when combined with epic turbidity by the clay-mud sediments, it had a catastrophic impact, creating a river of death.

All of the fish eggs in the redds from the fall cohort of salmon and trout in the main-stem of Klamath River below Iron gate dam and down river are now covered in clay silt and dead. Adult salmonoids and trout in the River are also dead. 

Mr. Branson of KRRC suggested that between 5-7-million metric yards of sediments were release during the breach of the dams. Yet, given prior estimates by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that the sediments in Copco and Iron Gate Lakes might be as much as 60-million metric yards, there may be as much as 55-million metric yards of polluted clay-mud sediments remaining. 

And as time and erosion continue to leach-out the deeper layers of those millions of tons of polluted sediments that remain, those deeper layers, which likely contain the heaviest concentrations of toxic heavy metals will be released into the Klamath River each time it rains, for many years to come.

A family of 8-deer died of hypothermia in the cold mud of the exposed lake bottom of Copco Lake. Hundreds of acres of polluted clay-mud pose a deadly sticky trap for wildlife. Photo courtesy Chrissie Reynolds 

KRRC proses to seed the mud-flat-sediments using hand-thrown seeds and possibly a helicopter. This listens-well but the reality is that seeds dropped on such inhospitable habitat will have great difficulty taking hold. Sadly they did not test seed germinability on this polluted clay, and instead did testing on well-established riverbank soils down river from the dams. 

Even if some species of plants might take hold in the hundreds of acres of toxic clay-mud lake-bottom, such vegetation will not abate the ongoing annual erosion and leaching of toxins from the clay-mud during fall and winter rains, which will impact any fish moving into or out-of the main-stem of the Klamath from tributaries. 

And in the summers when the heat bakes the clay to a dry dust, the toxic pollutants will become deadly airborne dust particles. 

Even now, some workers who are engaged in hand-spreading of seeds into the muddy clay have reported skin irritations and rash to the editor of Siskiyou News. Such skin irritation and rash is consistent with exposure to such toxic heavy metals as well as to the high levels of phosphates and nitrates contained in the clay-mud lake sediments.

A Call To Action!

The very real potential for the ongoing long-term pollution of the Klamath River below the dams via erosion and leaching of toxin concentrates from the remaining tens of millions of yards of clay-mud sediments, must be addressed and mitigated via the immediate removal of all remaining sediments from the lake bottoms. The removal must include relocation of these sediments, as proposed in the past, to a place suited to isolate such hazardous materials.

Removing these hazardous sediments from the ecosystem is the only genuine option to help increase the odds for a restored Klamath River ecosystem in the decades to come. And in that process, also protect the health of the citizens and wildlife living down-river. 

Additionally, residents who have water-wells in the alluvium of the Klamath River down-stream from the Iron Gate dam should be immediately advised in writing by KRRC that there is a potential for well contamination by such pollutants and that well testing seems advisable.


  1. My favorite philosopher is American Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). He taught me a lot. Among them was his disdain for Rene Descartes. He showed how Rene’s thought processes might have given birth to the insane academic’s political correctness. Single inference thinking vs the truth from multiple sources for verification. Cartesians get one screwball idea and take it to destruction – usually of beauty and common sense.

  2. “…a 2001 moratorium on the sale of land to foreigners had always represented an obstacle to unrestrained privatization. As post-Maidan governments turned again to the IMF for financing, aid was conditioned on a series of land reforms that would finally allow foreign corporations to acquire vast tracts of the country’s farmland. In 2020, Zelenskyy gave in to the IMF’s demands and finally repealed the moratorium. ‘Agribusiness interests and oligarchs will be the primary beneficiaries of such reform,’ said Olena Borodina of the Ukrainian Rural Development Network.

    ‘This will only further marginalize smallholder farmers and risks severing them from their most valuable resource.’ But the World Bank could barely contain its excitement, gushing: ‘This is, without exaggeration, a historic event.’ Even though the new law isn’t set to come into force until next year, US and Western European agrobusinesses have already bought up millions of hectares of Ukraine’s farmland — with 10 private companies reportedly controlling most of it.”

    In . . . “The whole Ukraine goes for sale -massive profit opportunities being created by the war’ — July 17, 2023Source: https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2023/07/17/the-whole-ukraine-goes-for-sale-massive-profit-opportunities-being-created-by-the-war/

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