As salmon returned to the Klamath River from the Pacific Ocean in 2002 to lay eggs, they found it choked and trickling. Water they needed had been held behind upstream dams and diverted for agriculture. Fish crowded the overheated shallows, succumbed to disease, and lined the banks with their lifeless bodies. As many as 70,000 salmon perished before they could spawn that year, the largest fish kill the region had ever seen.
Born as snow topping Oregon’s Cascade Range, the Klamath winds among wetlands vital to waterfowl, then through redwood forests to California’s coast. But since the first of six dams came online in 1918, water trapped in reservoirs has simmered in inland heat and collected farm runoff. The result: disease outbreaks and toxic algae blooms. Several of the river’s native fish are listed as endangered or threatened. Chum salmon and pink salmon have disappeared from it entirely.
For tribal nations that have called for dam removal for decades, the 2002 fish kill was the last straw. The Klamath and its salmon have supported them for millennia, infusing their culture and religious practices. “We call the river-being our lifeblood, the main artery of our existence,” says Wendy “Poppy” Ferris-George, who is Hupa-Karuk. “Without a healthy river, everything else is sick.”
Ferris-George and others took their case directly to PacifiCorp, which owned four dams on the lower Klamath. Those structures produced less than 2 percent of the utility company’s power and were reaching the end of their federal operating license. Facing an expensive renewal process and sustained pressure from advocates, PacifiCorp agreed in 2010 to take them down. Final federal approval came last year for what will be the largest dam removal in the world.
After more than a century, the lower Klamath soon will flow freely once again. The first dam will come down this summer, with three more slated for demolition by the end of 2024. The project will reopen more than 400 river miles to migrating salmon and rejuvenate habitat for other wildlife. It is an example—and a test—for those hoping to restore other West Coast rivers.
As the structures fall, more than 2,000 submerged acres will resurface. To prevent invasive plants from colonizing that land, the Yurok Tribe will plant billions of seeds from approximately 100 species that they’ve collected and propagated. “Introducing the greatest amount of diversity is going to benefit the greatest number of birds, bugs, and mammals,” says Joshua Chenoweth, senior riparian ecologist for the tribe.
Chenoweth led restoration on the Elwha River in Washington State, where two dams came down between 2011 and 2014. The Elwha previews what could be in store along the Klamath, says John McLaughlin, an ecologist at Western Washington University.
McLaughlin’s data show birds such as American Robins, Wilson’s Warblers, and Willow Flycatchers flourishing in the restored river environment. The benefits cascaded through the ecosystem: American Dippers, whose diet includes salmon eggs and fry, became healthier, survived longer, and nested more successfully. Other birds aided habitat renewal by spreading seeds. Old-growth forests and the species that rely on them, however, will take far longer to recover. “Building a dam and clearing the forest took a few years,” he says. “The legacy of that construction lasts centuries.”
That legacy is under scrutiny across the Pacific Northwest. The Nez Perce and other tribal nations are calling for tearing down four Snake River dams in eastern Washington to save salmon and the orcas that prey on them. Though not everyone is on board, bipartisan lawmakers from Idaho and Washington have voiced support, as has President Biden. Farther north in Washington, the Colville Tribes are pushing to free 348 miles of the Similkameen River, while efforts to demolish a Willamette River dam are ramping up in Oregon.
For the Klamath, removing four dams won’t be a panacea. Two others will remain upstream. Drought will likely fuel continued conflicts between farms and wildlife refuges that need water for endangered fish and migrating birds. “This is one piece of the puzzle,” Ferris-George says, “but it’s a huge piece.”
She was on the riverbank with other tribal members and advocates, warmed by a bonfire and watching online, when federal regulators finally gave the go-ahead. She felt a huge weight lift. With new hope that salmon will still be here for her grandchildren and their children, she says: “They will be able to rebuild their culture, rebuild their religious ways by having healthy salmon and a healthy ecosystem.”
This story originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue as “A Watershed Moment.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.