Karuk Tribe’s Effort to Remove Klamath Dams
Fed by snowmelt from the Cascade Mountains, the Klamath River
begins as a series of wetlands, marshes, and lakes in the
high mountain desert of Southeastern Oregon. Often called
the “Everglades of the West”, this area once hosted
an incredible diversity of wildlife, from the millions of
migratory fowl that winter in the marshes to unique species
of fish that inhabit the lakes and river. With up to 1.1 million
adult fish spawning annually, including chinook, coho, pinks
and chum salmon as well as abundant steelhead, the Klamath
was once the third most productive salmon river in America.
For thousands of years Native People, including the Klamath,
Karuk, Hoopa and Yurok Tribes, sustained themselves on the
bounty of the river. As white settlers came to the area, a
sustainable commercial fishery developed.
Today all of this has changed. Currently, Klamath River fall
chinook runs are less than 8 percent of their historical abundance.
For coho salmon the numbers are less than 1 percent. Chum
and pink salmon, once abundant in the Klamath, are extinct.
Coho salmon are listed as a threatened species, the Lost River
Sucker, and the Short Nosed Sucker are listed as Endangered
Species. Spring chinook, once the largest run of salmon, are
on the brink of extinction.
Many factors can be blamed for the Klamath’s decline,
but none are greater than the dams which stand between salmon
and their home spawning grounds in the Upper Basin.
When the Copco 1 Dam was constructed on the Klamath River
in 1918, it permanently blocked access to more than 350 miles
of salmon and steelhead habitat in the main stem of the upper
Klamath and its tributaries. Another dam, Copco 2, was constructed
just a quarter-mile downstream of the original facility in
The aptly named 173-foot-high Iron Gate Dam was constructed
in 1962 to re-regulate the wildly varying flows from the upstream
Copco dams and run a 20 megawatt power plant. With the construction
of Iron Gate, an additional seven miles of spawning habitat
in the main stem as well as important tributaries such as
Jenny Creek were blocked.
J.C. Boyle Dam diverts the majority
of the river’s flow
through a mile of flume (photo courtesy of Steve Pedery)
Today, all anadromous runs of salmon and steelhead, once
abundant in the upper basin, are extinct above Iron Gate Dam.
This means over 350 miles of historic salmon habitat is unreachable
by fish and much of it buried beneath reservoirs.
In all, there are six dams on the main stem of the Klamath
River: Iron Gate, Copco I and Copco II, J.C. Boyle, Keno,
and Link River. Since Keno and Link effectively replace natural
reefs that were destroyed and they serve the need of re-regulating
erratic flows for the upstream irrigation project, the Karuk
Tribe and its allies seek the removal of the lower four dams.
However, Keno and Link must be fitted with functional fish
The Impact on Klamath Basin Tribes
Often discounted by the Bureau of Reclamation are the water
and fishing rights of the Basin’s Native People. Originally
the Upper Klamath Lake supported a Tribal subsistence fishery
of more than 50 tons per year as well as a booming recreational
fishery and at least one cannery.
The Klamath Tribes, located above all six dams in the Chiloquin,
Oregon area have been denied access to salmon and steelhead
for over 87 years.
Karuk fishermen at the turn of the century
For down river tribes, the dams have contributed to the near
extirpation of spring salmon, and a dramatic decline in salmon
and steelhead numbers overall. This robs the Karuk, Klamath,
Hoopa, and Yurok Tribes of an important economic resource.
More importantly, the dams deny the Tribes’ of a vital
cultural resource and subsistence fishery.
In 2004, the Karuk harvested less that 100 salmon from their
last remaining dip net site, Ishi Pishi falls.
The Disaster of 2002
In the fall of 2002 we saw the region’s worst single
ecological disaster when over 68,000 fish died in a matter
of days. This represents the largest fish kill in US history.
The fish kill was caused by an infection that spread rapidly
in the shallow, warm waters of the Klamath- a situation created
by a combination of low flows from the Upper Klamath Irrigation
Project and water quality degradation by the dams.
Opportunities Afforded by Hydrorelicensing
In February, 2004 PacifiCorp filed a license application
for the operation of Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2, J.C. Boyle,
and Keno dams. The current license expires in 2007. Despite
years of meetings with Tribes, environmentalists, and fishermen,
PacifiCorp ignored all calls for fish passage in their final
When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issues
a new license, it will last for 50 years. Thus relicensing
provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address restoration
via dam removal.
Photo taken during 2002 fish kill (courtesy
of Tim Mckay)
Federal agencies such as Fish and Wildlife Service and National
Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have demanded that a new license
provide salmon access to the Upper Basin. NMFS has recommended
dam removal as the best way of doing this. The California
State Water Resources Control Board has mandatory conditioning
authority in regards to water quality. This means the state
of California can demand protection of the Klamath’s
“beneficial uses” in the license. This includes
water quality, recreation, and fish habitat. Therefore Gov.
Schwarzenegger has the power to require a feasible strategy
to return salmon to the upper Klamath Basin. The state’s
demands could include a combination of functional ladders
and dam removal to achieve these goals.
Dams are Dangerous for Fish and People
Dams deny salmon access to habitat and degrade water quality
by heating the river and hosting algae blooms. These algae
blooms are dangerous for people too.
Last summer, in an effort to better understand and describe
the water quality problems the dams create, Karuk Water Quality
staff began sampling the reservoirs to learn more about the
blue-green algal blooms that occur each summer. What we found
could lead to the closure of the reservoirs this summer.
Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, come in many varieties-some
benign, some toxic. What the Tribe discovered is called Microcystis
aeruginosa, which secretes a potent a liver toxin and proven
tumor promoter called microcystin.
Although the United States EPA does not have guidelines for
acceptable levels of microcystin, the World Health Organization
(WHO) does. According to the WHO, algal levels of 100,000
cells/milliliter of water represent a moderate health risk
for recreational users. The Tribe found sample sites with
over 100 million cells/ml-1000x times greater that the WHO
moderate risk levels!
Karuk water quality team takes samples
of toxic algae at Iron Gate Reservoi
The symptoms of microcystin poisoning include: skin rash,
eye irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, mouth ulcers,
liver damage, kidney damage, and in extreme cases, liver failure
Studies suggest that the toxin can accumulate in the flesh
of fish; however the Tribe has not determined whether or not
the toxin is present in Klamath salmon.
Dam Removal is Necessary to Restore Spring
Spring chinook were once the largest salmon run in the Klamath
and many other rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Spring chinook,
or springers, migrate up river in the spring when the river
is flush with cold water from melting snow pack. Since springers
will not actually spawn until the following fall, they must
find areas suitable to live out the summer. These areas, called
cold water refugia, are typically at the headwaters of the
river and its tributaries. Historically, springers used cold
water refugia upstream from Upper Klamath Lake such as the
Williamson, Sprague, and Wood Rivers.
Dams prevent springers from reaching these areas and have
thus caused a dramatic decline in their numbers. One of the
last refuges for Klamath spring chinook is the Salmon river.
In 2005, only 90 of these fish were found during annual fish
counts- the fewest ever.
The Karuk Tribe believes that restoring spring chinook is
the key to a sustainable and harvestable salmon fishery on
the Klamath River.
Currently federal agencies consider spring and fall chinook
to be the same species, however, that could change if the
genetic differences between the two were better described.
If spring chinook were considered to be unique from fall chinook,
they would undoubtedly be candidates for ESA listing.
Dam Removal is good for the Economy
For river communities such as Happy Camp, fish have served
as the cornerstone of the economy for thousands of years.
Once considered the ‘steelhead capital of the world,’
Happy Camp played host to anglers from around the globe. Today,
the fishery and tourism is in decline.
Salmon is the cornerstone of a healthy traditional diet
Dam removal is a key step in restoring the fishery and the
fisheries based economy.
Dam removal will require an investment of $200 - $500 million
– most of it in Siskiyou County. Given the scale of
this deconstruction project, many jobs would be created. In
the long term, the enhanced fishery would again draw tourists
to our communities and improved water quality would add to
Myths told by dam supporters:
Myth: The dams improve water quality
Fact: Dams degrade water quality by allow otherwise cold
water to warm as it sits behind the dam, stagnant beneath
the sun. The Klamath water is unusually loaded with nutrients
from fertilizers used upstream. This allows water in the reservoirs
to host massive algal blooms that create a host of water quality
Myth: We are desperate for the electricity
the Klamath dams produce
Fact: The Klamath dams produce a relatively small amount
of energy, 147 mega-watts. According to the California Energy
Commission’s 2002 California Hydroelectricity Outlook
Report: “Because of the small capacity of the Klamath
hydro units…removal of these units will not have a significant
reliability impact on a larger regional scale.”
Myth: These dams are needed by agriculture
Fact: None of the dams targeted for removal are used to create
Myth: The dams are needed for flood control
Fact: The dams were not designed for nor are they effectively
used for flood control. In fact, the most devastating flood
the area has seen since contact was in 1964, two years after
the construction of Iron Gate dam.
Who owns the Dams?
The dams are owned and operated by PacifiCorp. PacifiCorp
is a division of Portland based Pacific Power which is a wholly
owned subsidiary of Mid American Energy Holdings Co. of Des
Moines Iowa. In turn, Mid American is owned by billionaire
investor Warren Buffet of Omaha, Nebraska.
What you can do to help:
Keep pace with the latest news and action alerts which can
be found at: www.karuk.us. Just click on our campaign link.
Write or call your elected officials and let them know that
you want to see the Klamath salmon return home.
It is important ecologically. The Klamath is one of the most
ecologically diverse regions in America. The Klamath once
hosted 1.1 million spawning fish. In 2006 the expected number
of wild spawners is expected to be less than 25,000.
It is important economically. Again this year commercial
fishery closures will cost the California economy over $150
million. With construction of the Klamath dams, the economic
base for CA north coast communities is slowly being destroyed.
Dam removal coupled with other restoration strategies could
It is the moral thing to do. Klamath Basin tribes are suffering
from the loss of fish. The Karuk, Hoopa, Yurok, Klamath Tribes
and others lived along the river for thousands of years and
thrived. Loss of the fishery intimately affects the Tribes’
cultures and robs Tribes of the basis for a modern economy.
Send your letter to:
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814
For more information contact the Klamath River Campaign Coordinator,
Craig Tucker, Ph.D.
here to email Craig