Updated January 13, 2024 at 1:46 PM ET

The largest dam removal in U.S. history entered a critical phase this week, with the lowering of dammed reservoirs on the Klamath River.

On Thursday, the gate on a 16-foot-wide bypass tunnel at the base of Iron Gate dam, the lowest of those slated to be removed, was opened from a crack to 36 inches.

Amy Cordalis stood in the dawn chill to witness the first big surge as the gate was widened. She's an attorney and Yurok Tribe member who has played a critical role in advocating for dam removal. As water poured through the tunnel, she could hear boulders rolling and tumbling. The water turned to dark chocolate milk as decades of pent-up sediment surged through.

"This is historic and life-changing," Cordalis said. "And it means that the Yurok people have a future. It means the river has a future; the salmon have a future."

Mike Belchik, a senior policy adviser for the Yurok Tribe, was also there to witness the controlled breach.

"It's kind of surreal," said Belchik, who has worked on Klamath River water issues for the tribe for nearly 30 years. "I don't know why we had such confidence that it was going to happen. But we did. We always knew it would happen."

One hundred seventy-three feet high, with a 740-foot crest, Iron Gate is an earth embankment dam with a skinny, many-fingered reservoir behind it. The lowering — or drawdown — of Iron Gate and two other reservoirs on the Klamath River will make way for the removal of three remaining hydroelectric dams that are part of the Lower Klamath Project in Northern California and southern Oregon.

For decades, these barriers have blocked salmon, steelhead and Pacific lamprey from accessing habitat above them and contributed to poor water quality below. The Klamath River was once the third-largest salmon producer on the West Coast, but in the time since the dams were constructed, the Klamath's coho and Chinook runs have dwindled to a fraction of their historic abundance.

When tribal activists first started calling for the removal of four Klamath River dams in the late 1990s, people thought they were "crazy," said Leaf Hillman, an elder of the Karuk Tribe who helped launch the campaign. "We've never really considered any other alternative to removing dams. And so it was a fight that we were committed to, and that we knew that we had to win. And it's been an intergenerational struggle."

A massive die-off of Chinook salmon in 2002 that catalyzed increased activism around getting the dams removed. An estimated 34,000 to 78,000 fish died. The loss of these fish didn't just mean the loss of a fun summer fishing activity, said Brook Thompson, a Yurok Tribe member who was 7 years old at the time and is now in her late 20s. "Those salmon to me are the connections I have with my relatives," she explained. "In a day, that was all gone."

The fight to save the Klamath River's salmon shaped the lives and careers of people like Thompson, who grew up holding up posters at protests. Today, she is pursuing a Ph.D. that focuses, in part, on how to incorporate Native knowledge into policy. For her, it all comes back to the river and the fish that are so central to Native diets, ceremonies and identity.

"Yurok spirituality and Yurok ways of life cannot exist without having the salmon here," she said.

While activists celebrate the rebirth of a river, the massive project brings uncertainty to others, particularly residents who live near the dams. In the small town of Copco Lake, Calif., losing their namesake lake means losing the centerpiece of their community. It also brings heightened concerns about how the reshaped landscape will affect their property values and their ability to safeguard their homes from wildfires in a high-risk region.

Up until now, vehicles could easily access the lakeshore to pump water to fight fires, and aircraft could dip their buckets into the lake, according to Francis Gill, a Copco Lake resident and fire chief for the community's volunteer fire department. Gill fears that the community will be much more exposed to fire without the lake as a buffer.

"Now, instead of having that lake as a huge barrier, we get the potential for fire to jump the river, get from one side to the other easily," Gill said. "Especially just with the way the wildfires have been getting the last 10 years. They just blow up so fast and get so big, so quickly."

Other large dam removals on the Penobscot River in Maine and on the Elwha River in Washington state have shown that rivers — and the fish that depend on them — can recover quickly. The successful campaign and restoration of the Klamath watershed will no doubt inform other dam removal efforts.

"Every time we do this, and we do this at a big scale, we learn new things about the legal pathways," said Dave Owen, a law professor at the University of California, San Francisco. "It just helps people see that this is possible, and that it can be highly successful."

Advocates and analysts are eyeing four dams on the Lower Snake River in Idaho as the next big dam removal in the queue. Owen says that who owns the dams and what the dams are used for greatly impacts the politics around their removal.

"Along the Snake River, you have irrigators who rely on some of those reservoirs; you also have barge traffic, that's conveying wheat," Owen said. These factors make the Snake River dams a "harder case." Still, the removal of the Klamath River dams "makes action on the Snake River more likely than it was a few years ago," he said.

For the next week, water will flow through the bypass tunnel at an average rate of 2,200 cubic feet per second, draining down Iron Gate reservoir between two and four feet per day. Later this month, J.C. Boyle, the uppermost of the three dams, will be breached, followed by Copco 1. By June, the Klamath River should be flowing more or less within its historic channel, and the work of dismantling the structures can begin.

Advocates are quick to point out that dam removal alone will not save the Klamath River's salmon runs. However, removing the barriers will open up 76 miles of coho habitat and over 400 miles of Chinook habitat, says Shari Witmore, a fish biologist at NOAA Fisheries.

If modeling is correct, as many as 80% more Chinook salmon could return to the basin within about 30 years after the dams are removed. Ocean harvest could increase by as much as 46%. But this will depend in part on restoring important tributaries, including the cold spring-fed rivers in the upper Klamath Basin, which have been compromised with diking and draining of wetlands.

"Once we restore that, we put this basin back together," Witmore says. "That creates a lot of resilience over time with climate change, and it buffers against multi-year droughts."

Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe member, agrees that more work lies ahead. But she's also looking forward to fulfilling a simple personal goal.

"Fishing," she said. "I want to go fishing."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



Yesterday, an irreversible step was taken in the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. Crews opened a tunnel in one of the three Klamath River dams that are slated to be removed and started letting water flow through the lowest section of the river. It's a critical stage in a process that is expected to last through 2024. Jefferson Public Radio's Erik Neumann reports.

ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: The dam that was opened yesterday is the lowest on the river. It's huge - 173 feet tall, made of earth and rock. And after a 16-foot-wide tunnel was opened at the base yesterday morning, a plume of chocolate-milk-brown water surged through, containing sediment that had accumulated over decades. Mark Bransom is the CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the organization in charge of dam removal.

MARK BRANSOM: For the first time, you know, in a hundred years, beginning today, the river is actually coming back to life.

NEUMANN: The Klamath River flows more than 250 miles from Oregon through far Northern California, where it joins the Pacific Ocean. But for decades, much of the river has been blocked by four hydroelectric dams. Several tribes up and down this river have been at the forefront of protests to remove them for the health of fish, including salmon. Amy Cordalis is a member of the Yurok Tribe and a longtime advocate for dam removal.

AMY CORDALIS: This is historic and life-changing, and it means that the Yurok people have a future. It means the river has a future, the salmon have a future.

NEUMANN: Cordalis is an attorney for the Yurok Tribe and one of a younger generation of activists who took up the fight after the pioneering work of older tribal members like Leaf Hillman. He's a member of the nearby Karuk Tribe who helped start the campaign to take out the dams more than 20 years ago.

LEAF HILLMAN: As one generation, you know, moves on and passes on, the new generation is there to pick up the fight. And so it really has been a multigenerational struggle to remove these dams.

NEUMANN: The Klamath was once the third-largest-salmon-producing river on the West Coast. But over the past century, the salmon numbers have shrunk. The dams cut off spawning habitat and created conditions for fish diseases. Scientists are hopeful that ultimately taking out the dams will help the population rebound. Shari Witmore is a biologist with NOAA Fisheries. She helped evaluate the impacts to salmon from dam removal on the Klamath.

SHARI WITMORE: So when dams come out, we will have over 400 miles of Chinook habitat available, which we expect over time will be a greater than 80% increase in Chinook populations in the Klamath River.

NEUMANN: She says it's also expected to be a major step in the recovery of the river's more vulnerable Coho salmon. Reconnecting this single ecosystem, she says, will allow these species to extend their habitat. That'll help them better withstand heat waves, disease outbreaks, and increase their genetic diversity.

WITMORE: And that creates a lot of resilience over time with climate change. And it buffers against multi-year droughts.

NEUMANN: Improving these fish populations, Witmore says, will also help killer whales in the ocean and commercial fishermen. But there are some who are concerned about the possible effects of dam removal, like many in the small community of Copco Lake. In the coming weeks, homes that were once on the lake will now be on a mudflat, as the reservoir behind the dam turns back into a narrower river. Francis Gill is a resident and the chief of the volunteer fire department. He's worried about property values going down and fighting fires without the lake as a water source.

FRANCIS GILL: Especially just with the way the wildfires have been getting the last 10 years, it's just - they just blow up so fast and get so big so quickly.

NEUMANN: There are other dams being considered for removal in the U.S., like those on the lower Snake River in Washington state. Dave Owen is a professor at UC Law San Francisco, where he teaches environmental and water law. He says while other dams might face bigger legal and political hurdles to removal, large projects like those on the Klamath do create possible models.

DAVE OWEN: But still, every time we do this and we do this at a big scale, we learn new things about the legal pathways. I think the other way it helps is it just helps people see that this is possible and that it can be highly successful.

NEUMANN: By the end of February, water will be let out of the two other upriver Klamath dams and be flowing freely through this section of the river for the first time in a century, carving a new channel for itself as it heads to the ocean. For NPR News, I'm Erik Neumann on the Klamath River. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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