Featured News, Siskiyou

Dam Deception – Saving The Klamath River

cover photo: Many tens of millions of cubic years of polluted clay-mud are now exposed in Copco Lake (see above) and in Iron Gate Lake (see video). Images: William E. Simpson II

The Klamath River dams have been unplugged. And with the water that was drained from Copco and Iron Gate Lakes came millions of tons of polluted sediments.

Now the remaining polluted clay-mud sediments that have been deposited on the lake bottoms are in plain view.

The rapid unplanned release of fresh water from the lakes, over a very short period of time, has carried massive amounts of polluted sediments into the main-stem of the Klamath River.

The unfolding total ecological collapse of the Klamath River ecosystem is now empirically evident and undeniable.

As seen with Copco Lake, the sediments in Iron Gate Lake are massive and unresolved by the torrent of water blasted through the lakes. Photo: William E. Simpson

Trillions of co-evolved life forms have been killed with billions more dying. These devastated life-forms range from microorganisms and invertebrates that form the very foundations of the aquatic-life and food chain in the Klamath River, to the fishes and other co-evolved terrestrial animals who are now without their food sources as well. These are undeniable facts, beyond any debate.

The proper method of decommissioning these dams as advised by experts was to remove all the hazardous sediments from the lakes, then dewater the lakes, and then tear down the dams. Arguably, profitability and greed eliminated the first and most important step required to insure the best possible outcome; sediment mitigation.

The reckless and poorly planned execution of this dam decommissioning project has resulted in what is legitimately an environment disaster of epic proportions. 

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation’s ‘(KRRC’) management of the project has resulted in numerous unintended and unexpected adverse impacts. But that might be expected from a shell corporation with no prior operating experience in anything related to dam removal.

But there is genuine hope as I outline further below in this article. 

A Smoking Gun? 

Shocking obfuscation and critical failure in transparency! 

The U.S. Geologic Services conducted a sampling survey of the Klamath River basin taking sediment and water samples from 2018-2022. 

That data was arguably available to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (‘FERC’) as well as to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (‘KRRC’) prior to their releasing the polluted sediments from the lake bottoms!  

This vitally important USGS sediments report was not released to the public until after the reservoirs were drained.  

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

Make no mistake!

The (2018-2022) US Geologic Services report (released Jan. 31, 2024) shows chromium, lead and arsenic in the samples taken below Iron Gate Dam. That means, these heavy metals are in fact coming down the Klamath River from above Iron Gate and Copco Lakes. 

The recently unveiled USGS sampling report further confirms the results (presence of chromium, arsenic and lead) from a private water test taken at the Klamathon Bridge below Iron Gate Dam by a local resident near that bridge. (see lines; 5,6 &7 on the attached spreadsheet)

What makes the Copco and Iron Gate Lake sediments toxic? 
The answer is four-fold.

1. The mechanical nature of the sediment dumped into the Klamath River. The clay-mud sediment in the lake bottoms of Copco and Iron Gate Lakes is microcrystaline in structure and is smaller in size than ‘silt’.

Clay is fine-grained particles that are smaller than 0.002 mm, being the finest among all soil particles. Clay has plasticity and can be pressed into any shape you want, it has more plasticity than silt. Comparatively, silt has less plasticity, which means you cannot mold it into any particular shape. 

Silt is a granular material with a particle size between sand and clay, ranging from 0.002 to 0.006 mm. Clay infiltrates sticks (adheres) inside tiny spaces in many biologic organisms and adversely impacts the uptake of oxygen. Clay also fills-in the redds and fills the voids needed for circulation of oxygen and the tiny organisms that require these spaces in the gravel beds.

2. Organic material encased in the clay-mud. Over a century’s worth of organic material has settled to the bottom of Copco Lake (as well as iron) and was encased and sequestered in clay-mud, that greatly slowed decomposition via oxidation-reduction (aka: Redox). 

When these sequestered organic materials (plants, animals, algae, and iron) are disturbed from the clays and exposed to the River water and any dissolved oxygen, their rate of decomposition (Redox) accelerates as they rob oxygen from the water, leading to what is called eutrophication, and that results in low dissolved oxygen and adverse impacts on aquatic life.

3. Phosphorus and Nitrates sequestered in alga encased in clay-mud. The water in Klamath Lake is saturated (in solution) with naturally occurring phosphates (from minerals) and nitrates from resident and migratory bird feces. Those headwaters then proceed to the agricultural areas of the Klamath Basin, where they were used to irrigate crops that are fertilized. These waters, carrying nitrates and phosphates in solution, then drain into the headwaters of the Klamath River and flowed into Copco Lake, and then Iron Gate Lake. The algae (Microcystis aeruginosa), a cyanobacteria that lived in both Iron Gate and Copco Lakes were metabolizing those nutrients (taking them out of solution), and at the end of their life-cycles, these algae end-up buried on the clay-muds on the lake beds. That natural process was sequestering nitrates and phosphates into the lake bottoms for many decades, where they were buried under clay sediments, removing these nutrients from aqueous solution.

Cyanobacteria: Understanding Blue-Green Algae’s Impact on Our Shared Waterways

“Cyanobacteria, sometimes referred to as blue-green algae, share characteristics with both algae and bacteria. Cyanobacteria are closely related to true bacteria, but perform photosynthesis like algae to gain or fix energy, and in turn, produce oxygen.”

More here: Blue-green Algae in Copco and Iron Gate Lakes Behind Klamath River Dams: Nature’s Solution for Anthropogenic Nitrates – Siskiyou News

4. Heavy metals documented by USGS and other agencies, that have been concentrated from the Klamath River waters into the sediments deposited on the bottoms of the lakes. Even when there are minimal or non-hazardous amounts of heavy metals contained in the sediments being transported by the river and settled in a lake, as is the case in Copco and Iron Gate Lakes, over time these heavy metals can become 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. And both of these lakes have been storing phosphorus and nitrates through the biological actions of the algae in the lakes, which was safely sequestered in the clay sediments on the lakes bottoms.

When sediments are disturbed, these many concentrated pollutants become a serious consideration and form a deadly cocktail for the Klamath River and its life forms.

The profit-motivated corporations behind this human-caused ecological disaster and their zealot supporters are desperately attempting to gloss-over a horrific situation. The logic that supports that perspective is discussed more fully in this article: Klamath River Dam Removal – Pilot For Multi-Billion Dollar Business Model? – Siskiyou News

KRRC and their supporters are desperate to characterize their blunder as a success with carefully crafted media narratives that conflates and obfuscates hard data, saying what’s happened is ‘as planned’, in what I call a Dam Deception.

Now what?  Some people are hastily saying, its done, move on. But is that wise?

The first step in mitigating a failure, and any resulting disaster, is to admit it, and examine it carefully for what it is. 

Learning from failure is the first step that allows a failure to move towards success. But this requires brutal honesty, not continued deception and misinformation.

Admitting the failure allows discussions that produce paths for mitigation for the unintended outcomes that are clearly evident without all the smoke and mirrors that are being deployed by the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (‘KRRC’) and the zealots supporting their narratives. 

Moving-on is the last thing we need to do right now, if the future health of Klamath River and salmon runs is actually the primary goal and objective.

If people truly want the best outcome for the Klamath River, its wildlife, its fishery and for the people who live on the Klamath River, we must now immediately address the tens of millions of cubic yards of polluted toxic clay-mud that has been exposed and remains on the lake bottoms. 

Furthermore, the main-stem of the Klamath River is now choked with clay-mud sediments that have filled-in all the redds (spawning gravels for trout and salmon) and all the deep pools that were critical to migrating salmon and steelhead. 

We just paid a horrible ecological price by dewatering the lakes in the wrong order, but there is some potential good news IF we now get KRRC to take the right steps!

The Good News!

There is now a practical and cost effective solution to abate these sediments from the lake bottoms and the main-stem of the Klamath River. 

In Regard to Sediments Now Choking the Klamath River

In regard to the sediments that have filled-in an choked the Klamath River, those sediments must be dredged and removed, lest they continue for decades as an impediment to the recovery of the River.

In Regard to the Massive Remaining Lake-bed Sediments

It’s a scientific fact of geology and soil science that because the lake bottoms are now exposed, annual rains will now erode and leach the nitrates, phosphates, decomposing organic matter, heavy metals and additional microcrystalline clay sediments into the Klamath River. This ongoing erosion of these materials will pose a deadly cocktail for the River for many decades unless mitigated. 

The so-called plan to ‘plant’ these massive clay-mud lake beds, is just more of the flawed idealism and salesmanship that has created this unfolding disaster, and flows from the logic of economics and profitability at the expense of ecology and environment, and arguably doing whatever makes KRRC and their contractors the most profit. 

That plan, spreading seeds on the top of clay beds, is a cheap and ineffective idea that is doomed to failure for many reasons that logical practical agriculturalists understand. The proposal for topically applied seeds will be subjected to winds, eaten by birds and insects, and hammered by 140-degree-F heat and ultraviolet radiation. This doesn’t even consider the logistical challenges in irrigating these hundreds of acres of mud and the additional resulting erosion of pollutants into the River. 

The Solution Needed to Save the Klamath River From a Decades-long Future of Eroding Pollutants and Sediments.

Because these polluted lake-bottom sediments are no longer underwater, the expense of removing them is a lot less vs removing them by dredging methods when the lakes were in place.  These hazardous sediments can now be removed using traditional excavation methods, which will be more cost-effective in mitigating these ongoing sources of River pollution.


  1. Is there anything that’s happening to immediately shut the tunnel outlet on Iron Gate Dam and refill the lake? Can a lawsuit be brought to force closure of Iron Gate Reservoir tunnel outlet with an immediate injunction for KRRC violation of “Lower Klamath River Wild Scenic River?”

  2. Patty Vinikow

    Really, Royce. Please come visit me at Copco Lake and have the toxic fumes start to burn your soft cheekbone area. Or watch a noble heron struggling for life in the cold, dank mud. Or wait to see if your home will collapse on the cliff, or your well go completely dry.

    We were promised the lake drawdown would be slow and steady. Instead, it was rushed in four days. I live every second with the awful ecological pit off my deck. Of course, we all hoped for a “win-win.” Time will tell, but I agree with William E. Simpson, who I am sure will provide us with the documentation.

  3. Patty Vinikow

    Yes, thank you. You present good points as well. I know Mr. Simpson is extremely educated and intelligent, and you sound cogent and bright as well. So let’s gather all of us possessing compassion and abilities to navigate this new terrain.
    KRRC, the lake and river residents, and caring folk now weighing in from around the world are all waiting for….gulp…??? We must be ready for any and all challenges. Meanwhile, my world has vanished. I pray the replacement won’t be hazardous (aka toxic sediment).

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