Lessons From Elwha Dam Project and Salmon Recovery – Comparisons For the Klamath River

cover image courtesy of USGS

It’s been ten years since the Elwha Dam (5-miles upstream) and Glines Canyon Dam (13-miles upstream) were removed from the 45-mile long Elwha River. 

And other than a change in scenery, the results are quite unremarkable, especially considering the cost to taxpayers.

Yet we still find misinformed people who keep holding-out the Elwha Dam removal project as an example of what we might expect in regard to the Klamath River Dam removals. 

Is there any honest comparison between the Elwha Project and the Klamath River Dams Project?  The short answer is unequivocally ‘No’.

First, let’s make sure everyone understands the basic facts, which cannot be hyped or spun into flowery promises of sparkling river waters and native salmon runs so thick, you can walk across the river on their backs.

*The two dams on the 45-mile-long Elwha River, the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam, are respectively 5-miles and 13-miles up-river from the Strait of Juan deFuca. The sediments in the lakes behind the dams there were primarily silt, sand and gravel. There are no known toxins in the river.

**The Klamath River dams starting with Iron Gate Dam are 187-miles up-river from the Pacific Ocean. The Klamath River is 263-miles long, almost six-times longer than the Elwha River. The sediments in Copco and Iron Gate Lakes are primarily anthropogenically and naturally polluted clay-muds containing toxic heavy metals.

Size Matters!

The differences in the particle size of sediments is very important! This is especially true in regard to the adverse impacts some sediments have on aquatic life forms. Clay is the worst of the worst. Clay is sticky and clay particles are much smaller than sand or silt particles, which makes clay far more ecologically damaging to virtually all aquatic life forms when released as sediment into a river or stream. 

“Soil particles vary greatly in size, and soil scientists classify soil particles into sand, silt, and clay. Starting with the finest, clay particles are smaller than 0.002 mm in diameter. Some clay particles are so small that ordinary microscopes do not show them. Silt particles are from 0.002 to 0.05 mm in diameter. Sand ranges from 0.05 to 2.0 mm. Particles larger than 2.0 mm are called gravel or stones. Most soils contain a mixture of sand, silt and clay in different proportions.”

“The size of soil particles is important. The amount of open space between the particles influences how easily water moves through a soil and how much water the soil will hold. Too much clay, in proportion to silt and sand, causes a soil to take in water very slowly. Such a soil gives up its water to plants slowly. These soils are sticky when wet.”  

More Info:

Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) arguably rushed and  went off-plan to get rid of as much of the polluted sediments as possible, as fast as possible. And they did so at the risk of destabilizing roads and homes built on the shores of the lakes. WHY?

Copco Road at mile post 13 was destabilized and failed due to rapid draining of Iron Gate Lake. Photo: William E. Simpson II
This slide by KRRC was presented to the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors – ‘The Plan’

Instead of draining Copco and Iron Gate Lakes slowly over a period of several months as planned (image above) to minimize shoreline (bank and road) instability, KRRC went off-plan without notice or discussion beforehand to the public or it’s elected officials and dumped all the sediment laden water out of the lakes over the course of just a few days, instead of months!

One *theory about why KRRC went off-plan is this:

*KRRC knew the public release of the U.S. Geologic Services report (dated Jan. 31, 2024) on heavy metals was looming. KRRC also knew that public knowledge of that report, showing toxic heavy metals in and around the Klamath River dams, would create serious concerns about dumping Copco and Iron Gate Lake sediments into the Klamath River. Nevertheless, on January 23, 2024, a week before the release of the USGS sediment report, KRRC released a torrent of water from the lakes into the Klamath River containing 5-7 million cubic yards of polluted sediments. 

Was it just a coincidence that KRRC took that unplanned action a week prior to the release of the USGS sediments report?  

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, and have settled-out and concentrated into the bottoms of these lakes.

Based upon Mr. Bransom’s stated metrics as to KRRC’s release of about 5-7 million cubic yards of these nasty sediments, and knowing that there was 20-million metric yards of sediments in the lakes, it’s a mathematical probability that about 70-75% of these polluted sediments remain exposed in the bottoms of the drained lakes.

If rapid recovery of the Klamath River ecosystem and fishery is actually the goal, then allowing any additional amounts of these toxic sediments to escape the now exposed lake bottoms and enter the Klamath River is a huge mistake… insult upon injury to the Klamath River! [2]

It’s shocking to learn that Oregon and California taxpayers have been placed on the hook for virtually all those costs!  And these monumental costs are coming at time when taxes need to be spent for creating more water storage, not removing water storage and green hydro-electric energy.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, aka ‘FERC’ felt they had the unlimited authority to bind California and Oregon taxpayers to this massive financial ball and chain, without asking voters! 

Item 75: 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.121 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.122 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.123″

*PRO-DAM REMOVAL SALES PITCHThe Elwha Dam was projected to cost $151-million dollars

*THE TRUTH:The Elwha Dam removal project ended up costing double of what was projected – $308-million [1]

**PRO-DAM REMOVAL SALES PITCH: The Klamath Dams project was projected to cost $450-million over a decade ago.

**THE TRUTH: The Klamath Dams project will likely cost $800-million, plus over a $500-million in environmental clean-up costs and another $500-million or more in liabilities due to litigation. Total estimated costs = $1.8-billion.

What About Restoring Salmon Runs? Elwha River vs. Klamath River?

Early-on prior to the removal of the Elwha dams, various people, so-called ‘experts’, made claims that the Salmon fishery in the Elwha River would be restored within 10-years of dam removal.  

But wait, it seems that’s not what happened!

In a December 2021 article titled ‘Elwha River Salmon Recovery’ by Florian Graner/Sealife Productions, the following quotes are found buried in the overly optimistic predictions:

Sam Brinkman (Chief Fisheries Biologist of the Olympic National Park) expects a full salmon recovery in the 45-mile long Elwha River to take at least twenty to thirty years.

“The fishery has been halted for ten years now, since 2011, to help the salmon recover. The vision guiding recovery is a fish population robust enough to support itself, not relying on supplements from hatcheries. Rebuilding a naturally-reproducing Elwha Chinook run poses a significant challenge.”

In another article titled. ‘Will the might spring Chinook rise again?’ by Christopher Dunagan, we find this statement:

“The tendency of Elwha Chinook to cluster between the dam sites was generally confirmed by researchers looking for signs of spawning by searching for gravel mounds created when females bury their eggs in the riverbed. These salmon nests, called redds, generally mark the end of a female Chinook’s migration. In a 2019 survey, 66 percent of the redds counted in the river were between the two dam sites, while 28 percent were below the Elwha Dam and only 6 percent were above the Glines Canyon Dam. This survey was part of a long-term study led by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.” [Note: This finding shows that 5-years after dam removal, few fish utilized the newly created access to additional spawning areas upriver from removed dams]

“A similar distribution also was seen in a 2017 survey of Chinook carcasses found along the river after spawning. Tests on the dead fish revealed that 96 percent were released from hatcheries, primarily a state hatchery on the Elwha.” [3]

Since 96% of the fish counted were introduced hatchery fish, their metrics on fish numbers are massively inflated via these introduced fish… it’s essentially a fish farmnot a native salmon run.

In light of this information, it is astounding that people representing the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who are paid with public funds, like Mr. Mike Harris, suggested in a public meeting before the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors (Feb. 13, 2024) that “we might see the beginning of a recovery of our Klamath River Salmon in a decade.”    

In light of the foregoing empirical results on the Elwha River, a tiny river and tributary system compared to the now ecologically collapsed massive Klamath River ecosystem, anyone suggesting any form of a reestablished salmon run in less than 30-50 years, assuming ideal conditions, is just blowing smoke, and deserves criticism.  

American taxpayers are not interested in managing our natural resources based upon wild exaggerations and fairy-tale projections that suffer massive cost over-runs. 

Based upon what’s now projected as the timeline (now that the dams are lost) for Elwha (20-30 years), it would not be unreasonable to expect 30-50 years for the Klamath Salmon fishery to recover, IF, from this point on we do all the right things, especially address the remaining toxic sediments in the lake bottoms.

A Silver Lining In a Dark Environmental Disaster

Science informs us that at this point in addressing the Death of the Klamath River and its potential revival, there is one thing we can do to make a genuine positive impact that will speed the recovery of the Klamath River and protect the health of the American citizens who live along the Klamath River.

That single most important thing is to remove all remaining polluted sediments now exposed on the lake bottoms using standard, cost-effective excavation methods, and relocate these hazardous sediments in a manner that prevents them from entering any watershed or aquifer.

After all the sediments have been mitigated, Resource Environmental Services (RES) should then, and only then, reseed the cleaned lake bottoms.

We must now demand that the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (‘KRRC’) do what’s right for the environment, and use conventional excavation methods to remove ALL remaining polluted-toxic sediments from Copco and Iron Gate Lakes so they do not erode and leach into the River for the next 50 years or more.

1. Elwha dam removal project cost rising to $308 million | Peninsula Daily News

Elwha dam removal project cost rising to $308 million | Peninsula Daily …PORT ANGELES — The three-year Elwha River dams removal project will begin in 2012 and cost an estimated $308 mil…

2. Dam Deception – Saving The Klamath River – Siskiyou News

Dam Deception – Saving The Klamath River – Siskiyou NewsWilliam Simpson IIcover photo: Many tens of millions of cubic years of polluted clay-mud are now exposed in Copco Lake (see above)…



  1. Kristi Lawrence

    Great article. Thank you again for all your hard work.

  2. Fantastic reporting explaining the difference between the rivers tge Dams the distance the sediment the eviromental destruction 👏

    We are all praying some one like yourself that can convey facts over smoke will please say something about Scott Dam at LAKE PILLSBURY.

    The dam has been in place for over a hundred years the sediment behind the dam is deep full of mercury from old minds along the shoreline. The area surrounding the lake has been harvest for timber adding more sediment. The forest fires in the past five years have also adding more run off sediment.

    There are cabins and resorts and boats adding to toxins. Yet Jared Huffman congressman and other none profits want to demolish the the dam.


  3. Michael Woskow

    At this point I say leave well enough alone. The regulatory agencies have to impose serious restrictions penalties and fines on the owners of the dams in question.
    Tell me why the maintenance burdens be imposed on the taxpayers?
    We all recognize and have experienced water shortages due to drought & band-aid solutions. To include the convoluted tug-of-war to do the right thing concerning healthy fish populations, water conservation & storage.
    As a lifelong fisherman & water drinker I can only vote & hope that the powers that be will cease the politics of PROFITEERING from our ENVIRONMENTAL BLOOD… that being sustainable migratory fish populations, agricultural water supplies & recreational water flows.
    An eye opening read is STRONGHOLD by Tucker Malarkey.

  4. This is a bullshit article that doesn’t any basis in fact when it comes to fish restoration.

    As the lead author for the Elwha River Fish Restoration Plan, multi agency managers used 35 to. 50 years as a possible recovery timeline for fish populations. No one said 10 years . Fish populations have been continuously colonizing more upstream areas in the Elwha River. We are seeing more redds in tributaries and the mainstem Elwha. I start steelhead spawned surveys in two week for this coming year (2024).

    One generation of chinook is 6 to 8 years in the Elwha. Do the math. You can’t create paper fish to debunk recovery efforts. Get out into the systems and see what’s happening.

    You should be. Vilified for such a biased article. Salmon would never recover in the Klamath without dam removal. We all have to pay the costs of impacts to our natural resources populations when it comes time to recover them.

  5. This article supposes salmon recovery is simply a matter of increasing potential spawning habitat, which, with as learned as the author purposes to be, he should know full well places it nearly in the realms of purposeful misinformation (propaganda). It says nothing of some of the biggest problems affecting Klamath river fish populations, and the suspected relief thought to be attainable for them through dam removal, such as water temperatures, flood events as they relate to whole river desiltification, and C. Shasta reduction. The improvement of these three factors alone will be a significant benefit to indigenous fish populations and the long term recovery of California salmon populations.

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