After decades of advocacy from Klamath River Indigenous peoples, community members, conservationists, and fishermen, the smallest of four dams – Copco 2 – has been removed from the Klamath River. This effort, along the border of Oregon and California is part of the largest dam removal and river restoration project in U.S. history, led by Indigenous peoples that include members from the Yurok, Karuk, Shasta, Hupa, and Klamath Tribes. The remaining three dams, which currently block over 400 miles of upstream salmon habitat, will be removed by the end of 2024. Salmon are critical to the culture and livelihood of Indigenous peoples in the Klamath Basin and a critical food source for endangered resident killer whales.
The Klamath River was once the third-largest salmon producing river on the West Coast. Between 1908 and 1962, four hydroelectric dams were built to provide power to farms and towns in the region. The construction of these dams, which generated electricity for PacifiCorp, produced less than 2% of the power needed for the company’s customers. The introduction of these dams disrupted the flow of the river, creating sediment buildup, and altered water temperature, creating the perfect conditions for toxic blue-green algae. Built with no fish ladders, these dams also denied salmon access to their historical spawning and rearing habitat.
In 2002, conditions of the Klamath River were made worse as additional water was diverted for agricultural purposes brought on by drought. The conditions on the river led to a bacterial outbreak that killed an estimated 70,000 adult salmon before they could even make it to spawn – resulting in one of the largest mass die-offs of salmon in history. This prompted Tribal communities to start a grassroots campaign for the removal of the dams. PacifiCorps tried to continue operating the dams, but when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process required major updates to the structures, PacifiCorps, the States of California and Oregon, tribal governments, conservation groups, commercial and recreational fishing organizations, and counties reached a settlement agreement to remove the dams in 2016. In 2022, FERC approved decommissioning the dams, setting the stage for demolition.
Through the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, PacifiCorps transferred ownership of the dams to the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit that will oversee their removal. Furthermore, this agreement put the rights of the environment, Indigenous peoples, and business interests on the same footing. With the Copco 2 dam removed, local tribes are already seeing changes to the landscape. As Amy Cordalis, member of the Yurok Tribe and Principal of Ridges to Riffles Indigenous Conservation Group, an organization that supports the rights of Indigenous communities, said upon viewing these changes, “once the dam was removed, the river knew what to do.” Dam removal signals the beginning of healing on the Klamath of both the Indigenous peoples and the river.
The Conservation Alliance has supported Ridges to Riffles Indigenous Conservation Group as a grantee through its Confluence Program since January 2023. The organization is an Indigenous-led advocacy group that represents the interests of Tribes, Native organizations, and Native people as they seek to protect, preserve, and restore their cultural resources and sovereignty. The Conservation Alliance also provided early funding to California Trout to restore the Klamath Basin through removal of these four dams.