If all goes according to the latest plan, four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, which runs from southern Oregon to the northern California coast, would be removed in 2021. It’s the culmination of years of work in the Klamath Basin by a diverse group of stakeholders including tribes, state and federal agencies, farmers and ranchers and conservationists.
The removal of the dams would open up hundreds of miles of stream habitat, in a boost to native fish populations, and is expected to also improve water quality in the river. And while a massive undertaking, and the biggest such dam removal process in the nation, those who know the basin well understand that it’s just one piece of a bigger picture.
Water Deeply spoke with Chrysten Lambert, Trout Unlimited’s Oregon director, and its California director, Brian Johnson, to understand what other crucial work is also happening in the Klamath Basin and what needs to take place to realize a more complete basin-wide restoration effort.
Water Deeply: With the release of the Definite Plan, the removal of four dams on the Klamath River came one big step closer to reality. What would the removal of the dams mean?
Chrysten Lambert: It means everything. The removal of the dams will open the basin once again to the natural migration of salmon and steelhead, but it will also reunite its people and provide incredible new opportunities for our communities as we work to restore the watershed. The Klamath will be one river again. For 100 years, it’s been cut in half – a California river and an Oregon river.
Brian Johnson: People talk about how significant the project is for river conservation – and removing the four Klamath River dams is truly is the biggest single thing that can be done for rivers or fish anywhere in the country. But I think people still underestimate what it will mean culturally and emotionally. When salmon and steelhead show up in Klamath Falls, that will blow some people’s minds. No one remembers those days. But kids in grade school now will grow up with them.
Water Deeply: While crucially important for fish, the removal of the dams won’t solve all of the Klamath Basin’s water woes. What areas are the biggest priorities now and after dam removal?
Johnson: Dam removal is the biggest thing, but it has never been the only thing. There are great sources of cold, clean spring water in the tributaries, and they support world-class redband trout fisheries and provide habitat for threatened bull trout right now. But we also have other challenges, like poor water quality between the dams and the springs. These are solvable problems and the future potential for the Klamath to be a fully functional river, for people and ecologically, is sky high. That’s why Trout Unlimited has made investments in the Klamath, above and beyond dam removal, one of our highest national priorities.
Lambert: Dam removal provides the first opportunity I have seen to holistically restore a major river basin, but if we are satisfied with just the removal of the dams, we will have failed. We must also resolve the conflicts over water and water quality and provide a sustainable future for all the stakeholders in this watershed. This means finding balance in management of water supplies, restoring wetlands and riparian areas, investing in irrigation and energy efficiency, and assuring that the cultural, social and economic needs of all the communities are met.
Water Deeply: What are some ways in which restoration of tributaries should be undertaken? Who is involved in this process?
Lambert: Restoration in the Upper Klamath Basin depends entirely on partnership with private landowners, mostly family farmers and ranchers who are often in a key position of stewarding our natural systems. The restoration work includes improving and protecting riparian and aquatic habitat, restoring riparian and lake-fringe wetlands to improve water quality, increasing the efficiency of water use to improve instream flows and keep water temperatures cool, recovering endangered Lost River and shortnose suckers and restoring the geomorphic function of the streams.
Trout Unlimited and our many partners are already actively doing this work, as well as planning for the next phases of work through a variety of watershed planning venues, which importantly include the Klamath Tribes and their natural resource department, which must help lead this work for it to be successful.
Examples of this kind of work include the recently completed Sun Creek project that returned the creek to its historic channel – once again connecting Crater Lake National Park with the Wood River after more than a hundred years. The Open Rivers Fund is currently investing in our work to strategically remove small dams that limit fish passage on Annie Creek, another important tributary for returning salmon and steelhead, and Trout Unlimited is close to completing a 10-year effort to fully restore the Sevenmile Creek drainage into Upper Klamath Lake.
Johnson: There is a tremendous amount of restoration happening in the Klamath Basin – it’s exciting. The Karuk and Yurok fisheries departments are doing great restoration work in the lower river and its tributaries. The Yurok Tribe’s work on Blue Creek is truly inspiring. Many people, including The Nature Conservancy and California Trout, are doing work in the Scott and Shasta rivers. And Trout Unlimited, CalTrout and The Nature Conservancy are leveraging our respective restoration efforts in a partnership called the Salmon and Steelhead Coalition, which helps to coordinate and scale up our streamflow restoration work on the North Coast of California from the Klamath past San Francisco Bay.
Water Deeply: There’s been talk of another water war brewing in the Klamath over some recent lawsuits that could curtail water for irrigation to protect fish. Do you think there is enough Basin-wide support for environmental restoration projects right now? If not, how do we get there?
Johnson: The past couple years have been really hard for people in the Klamath Basin at both ends of the river. Salmon populations are way down, and the commercial fishing industry and tribal members who depend on these fish are at rock bottom.
For Yurok and Karuk members, salmon are not only the foundation for their sustenance, they’re at the heart of who they are as people, so this is an existential threat. The creation story for the Klamath Tribes says that if C’waam (Lost River suckers) go away, the people do too. At the same time, farming and ranching communities in the Upper Basin are really suffering. Many people we know and work with in these communities are hanging on by a thread, if they’re hanging on at all.
For all the struggles, I think there’s still a shared vision for the basin. When you ask different stakeholders what the future looks like, there is a lot of common ground. I don’t know how long it takes to develop a comprehensive solution, but many of us are working on it and we won’t give up until we get there. In the meantime, we’re talking about “no regrets” actions we can take right now that help everybody – things like habitat and water quality improvements.
Lambert: The majority of the basin has already come together to support restoration and I believe looks forward to fully implementing the restoration plans. Most people recognize that water security can only be achieved by improving water and habitat quality, and so restoration work is ongoing every single day.
Getting to the necessary pace and scale requires Congressional action and leadership and a viable, comprehensive vision for the future.
Water Deeply: Ten years from now, what does success look like to you in the Klamath Basin?
Lambert: Success is healthy and thriving communities, both ecological and human. The basin should be a place where there is unified vision for a prosperous future for everyone that calls it home, a place where the next generation sees opportunity and future for their families, and where everyone’s culture and history are respected. The battles in the Klamath right now are about fish and water on the surface, but the challenges for our community are much deeper, grounded in the painful history of Western resource management and extraction. This approach is not sustainable or equitable for anyone.
Johnson: Our vision is for the Klamath to be a model for other Western river-based communities, a place where people have come together, in mutual respect, and built a bright future together. The Klamath is a remote place with some of the most unique natural resources in the world, and it deserves the focus and attention of everyone because it’s a place where we still have opportunity to realize a truly integrated model of living sustainably in a watershed with limited water resources, while recovering our fisheries and local economies.
The whole geography between the Sacramento River and the Columbia River tends to be overshadowed by those larger basins, but it has tremendous upside in terms of fisheries potential. We’re invested heavily in places like the Eel River and the rest of California’s North Coast, the Rogue and Umpqua rivers, up through Tillamook Bay.
A lot was lost in the 20th century from things like poor logging practices, but in California the timber companies are now among our best restoration allies and their lands are coming back as productive habitat for salmon and other coldwater fishes. If we can get a few other problems under control – like water diversions for cannabis cultivation – there is no reason North Coast California and southwest Oregon rivers can’t return to their former glory. And because they are not heavily impacted by development, they could remain that way for centuries to come. That’s our vision, and the Klamath River is at the heart of it.