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Restoring the Klamath River: The Significance and Challenges of Dam Removal

The following is written from the video transcript, the 2 hr video is at the bottom of article: Sue Keydel, who recently retired from the USEPA Region 9, has been working on the Klamath Dam project since 2007 with the EPA. She started in the water quality standards and assessment section and then transferred to the water department, gaining a long history on this project while working with the EPA. The other speaker is Keith Parker. Keith introduces himself as a senior fisheries biologist with the Yurok Tribe of Northern California. He is also an adjunct professor at Cal Poly Humboldt and UC San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The Klamath River, flowing through Oregon and California, was once home to thriving populations of salmon and other anadromous fish that were integral to the ecosystem and to indigenous tribes that have inhabited the region for over 10,000 years [1]. However, the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams in the early to mid-20th century cut off hundreds of miles of habitat and contributed to dramatic declines in fish populations [1,2]. Now, a historic project is underway to remove four of these dams, restoring the river’s natural flow and reopening access to critical spawning grounds [1]. While the project offers hope for reviving the river’s ecology and the communities that depend on it, significant challenges remain.

Ecological and Cultural Significance
Prior to the construction of the dams, the Klamath River supported the third largest salmon runs on the U.S. West Coast [1]. These abundant fish populations were a cornerstone of the ecosystem, with marine-derived nutrients from salmon carcasses supporting a vast food web [2]. The salmon also sustained the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa and other indigenous tribes, providing physical and spiritual nourishment and forming the basis for their cultural traditions [2]. The collapse of the salmon runs in the 20th century dealt a devastating blow to the river’s ecology and the tribes. In 2002, a massive fish kill claimed an estimated 68,000 adult salmon when excessively low river flows and poor water quality caused by dams and agricultural diversions led to an outbreak of disease [2].

The Klamath Dams and their Impacts
Between 1922 and 1962, six dams were constructed on the Klamath River for hydroelectric power generation [1]. The four dams slated for removal – JC Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate – cut off over 400 miles of habitat and dramatically altered the river’s hydrology and water quality [1]. The reservoirs created by the dams had problems with toxic algae blooms while preventing anadromous fish passage to the upper basin [1,2]. Declining salmon numbers led to fishing restrictions, harming tribal subsistence fishing as well as commercial and recreational fisheries [1]. Despite fish ladders and other mitigation attempts, many salmon runs have continued to struggle [2].

ECOSYSTEM experiments

45% of the tagged fish successfully migrated downstream

information provided by Keith Parker in the webinar, thousands of yearling Chinook salmon from the Trinity River Hatchery were trucked and released into the upper Klamath Basin, specifically in the Williamson, Wood, and Sprague Rivers, as part of an experiment conducted by researchers from Cal Poly Humboldt and UC Davis [2].

Trinity River Hatchery, credit:
Link River Dam: Flickr

Regarding the survival rate of these transported fish, Parker mentioned that approximately 45% of the tagged fish successfully migrated downstream and were detected below Link River Dam [2]. This indicates that close to half of the relocated fish were able to navigate their way downstream into the Klamath River from the upper basin.

Momentum for Dam Removal
Recognizing the damage caused by the dams, indigenous tribes and environmental groups fought for decades for their removal [2]. Changing economic and regulatory conditions eventually made dam removal a more viable option for the dams’ owner, PacifiCorp [1]. After complex negotiations between PacifiCorp, tribes, environmental groups, farmers, and state and federal agencies, agreements were reached in 2010 and amended in 2016 to remove the four dams [1]. The dam removal project, the largest in U.S. history, finally broke ground in 2020 and is slated for completion by 2024 [1,2].

Ongoing Challenges
While dam removal is a critical step, the Klamath will require active, long-term restoration to recover from over a century of impacts [2]. Hundreds of miles of habitat may be reopened, but concerns remain about the lasting impacts of poor water quality, excessive sedimentation, disease, and reduced genetic diversity from hatchery influence [2]. Warming water temperatures due to climate change pose another challenge for temperature-sensitive fish like salmon [2]. Stakeholders will need to collaborate on holistic solutions that support sustainable water sharing, habitat restoration, and harvest management [2]. Tribes will play a vital role, combining traditional ecological knowledge with modern science and continuing to advocate for the health of the river [2].

The Klamath River dam removal project represents a historic opportunity to restore a vital ecosystem and make amends for past environmental and cultural injustices. Success will require vision, commitment, and cooperation from all who value this iconic river. If done right, it could serve as a model for other dam removal and river restoration efforts worldwide. The tribes and advocates who fought tirelessly for the Klamath’s restoration deserve respect and gratitude. Through their efforts, there is renewed hope that future generations may once again witness the sight of salmon returning to their ancestral waters.


  1. keydel, S. (2023, April 14). Overview of Klamath dam removal negotiations and agreements [Webinar]. Environ at UCLA.
  2. Parker, K. (2023, April 14). Tribal perspectives on Klamath dam removal and restoration [Webinar]. Environ at UCLA.

The California Envirothon is an outdoor natural resource education program for high school students grade 9-12

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