August 04, 2021
By Michael Wier
The Klamath River is broken. The Klamath is the second-largest river system in California and once supported one of the largest salmon runs on the West Coast. But right now it’s severed right down the middle by four dams that separate the upper Klamath basin and the lower Klamath River. For nearly 100 years, these dams have kept native salmon and steelhead from returning to the pristine springs and cold clearwater tributaries of Klamath Lake. The upper watershed is still a place the fish remember in their DNA, just as the native peoples still tell stories of the salmon that once returned there. For 100 years, it’s been just memories, but soon that all might change. The four main stem dams that block fish passage are on the cusp of removal. When it happens, it will be the largest river restoration project in history.
The Klamath River is one of the most diverse river systems in the world—many have called it an upside-down river. Unlike many rivers where the wetlands and marshes are lower down in the watershed near the estuaries, the Klamath originates in a vast wetlands-and-lake network in the otherwise arid southeastern Oregon basin. This ecosystem was once one of the largest wetland complexes in Oregon and supported a huge variety and abundance of wildlife, including millions of migratory birds. Now, much of the upper basin has been adapted to agriculture and produces vast amounts of food.
From the upper basin, the Klamath cuts a most peculiar path through the rugged Cascade Range and Klamath Mountains. Along the way, the terrain, flora, and fauna change dramatically from the oak-filled canyons of the middle river down to the Coastal Range, where the river winds among giant redwoods in a temperate rainforest before draining into the Pacific Ocean.
All five species of California’s native Pacific salmon are present in the Klamath Basin. Runs of fall Chinook were once estimated to reach more than 1 million fish. Now they typically range from 20,000 to 100,000 annually. The Klamath was also historically known for its run of huge spring Chinook, but they are barely hanging on. Recent genetic work coming out of the Klamath Basin has proved that spring and fall Chinook have different genome sequences that are evolutionary traits adapted over thousands of years. This science may get Klamath springers listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) due to their much lower than historic numbers, and their importance in the ecosystem and to the local fishermen.
Salmon are good indicators of the health of the ecosystem, but the Klamath is probably best known by fly fishers for its huge run of summer steelhead. There is also a run of winter steelhead, but they get less attention from fly fishers because the river is often too big to fish in most winters.
There’s also a spectacular run of half-pounders. These mini steelhead come into the river in the fall, range from 12 to 18 inches, and are a favorite of fly fishers because of their aggressive strikes on swung and skated flies. Even in its impaired condition, the Klamath and tributaries like the Trinity provide some of Northern California’s best steelhead fishing.
Yurok, Hoopa, and Karuk people have historically inhabited the steep canyons and tributaries of this watershed from the mouth of the Klamath at the old village site of Requa, all the way up to the middle Klamath. These tribes are prolific fishing people, and salmon are a huge part of their culture.
Much of the middle Klamath Basin was Shasta tribal territory, including the tributaries that originate on the flanks of Mt. Shasta, such as the Shasta and Scott rivers. The upper reaches of the Klamath Basin and Klamath Lake is Modoc, Klamath, and Yahooskin territory.
In 1864, the tribes of the lower Klamath signed a treaty with the United States and were assigned reservations, which encompassed much of the lower Klamath River from the confluence of the Trinity to the mouth of the river. Unlike most Native Americans who were sent off to reservations on lands that were not their native territory, the tribes of the Lower Klamath were never separated from their homelands. Because of this simple fact, the tribes have maintained their physical and spiritual connection to the river, and have life histories and creation stories of that landscape going back thousands of years.
The tribes of the lower Klamath still rely heavily on the river for their livelihoods. When their treaties were signed, the Yurok and Hoopa were guaranteed fishing rights in perpetuity by the federal government. The tribes have worked hard to maintain those fishing rights, like during the salmon wars of the 1980s, when they clashed with federal troopers over harvesting in the lower river. The Yurok eventually won this battle in court.
They have also done much to protect the habitat. In 2018, Western Rivers Conservancy purchased 47,097 acres along the lower Klamath and Blue Creek from Green Diamond Resource Company and transferred the land to the Yurok Tribe to manage it as the Blue Creek Salmon Sanctuary (14,790 acres) and Yurok Tribal Community Forest (32,307 acres). The Blue River is a coldwater lifeline for the Klamath, which has suffered greatly at the hands of agriculture and timber harvest.
For nearly a century, the tribes have blamed Klamath River dams for dwindling runs of salmon and violation of their historic rights to salmon. This battle came to a head in 2002, when the California Department of Water Resources refused to release cold water from the Trinity River to help imperiled salmon, and instead directed the water to the Central Valley at the request of corporate farms. This resulted in a massive fish kill estimated as high as 70,000 fall Chinook.
In 2000 CalTrout and other stakeholders engaged with PacifiCorp, the company that owns and operates the dams, through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process of its four Klamath dams. The negotiations began with advocacy for fish passage around the dams, and adequate flows to keep fish populations healthy below the dams, but it eventually became clear that dam removal might actually be the most cost-effective solution to a myriad of problems plaguing the Klamath River and its fish.
The company determined that it would cost more to retrofit the dams to meet current earthquake standards, and also to build fish ladders to meet federal regulatory measures for endangered and threated species, than it would to just remove them. Like an old car that needs constant repairs to stay operational, the old Klamath dams no longer made economic sense.
In 2010 the final Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement outlined dam removal and put a $200 million cap on liability for PacifiCorp for the cost of the dam removal—much less than the potential costs to retrofit the dams to current standards. The agreement then went to Congress in the form of a bill. Congress never voted on it, and the bill died.
After more years of negotiations, in 2016 a group of signatories including the tribes, the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Department of Commerce, PacifiCorp, TU, CalTrout, and Oregon and California signed an agreement to remove the four dams on the Klamath River by 2020 through a process administered by FERC. The Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) was set up as a nonprofit entity to receive the dam licenses and oversee the dam removal. In addition, $450 million was secured in funding to handle the dam removals: $200 million from PacifiCorp, which it had previously collected via an extra $1 fee added to ratepayer bills, and $250 million from California and Oregon bond money.
It seemed like everything was lined up for dam removal starting in 2020, but that summer FERC threw a major curveball by announcing it would not approve the removal of the dams unless PacifiCorp stayed on as a co-licensee throughout the dam removal process to absorb any extra liability. FERC didn’t want PacifiCorp to completely walk away from unforeseen expenses, and PacifiCorp didn’t want to stay on the license—the whole point for them was to wash their hands of this major liability at the known cost of $200 million. Once again, the plan stalled.
Buffett Steps In
PacifiCorp is owned by the parent company Berkshire Hathaway. After the FERC announcement, CalTrout and other stakeholders circulated petitions urging Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett to take the deal and stay on as co-licensee. In September, executives from Berkshire Hathaway met with members of the Yurok tribe in California. Amy Bowers-Cordalis, general council for the Yurok Tribe and a KRRC board member, took them on a tour of the area and engaged in some informal negotiations. Together they toured the four dam sites, and then visited the Yurok reservation near the mouth of the river at Requa. Some of them went out fishing with Yurok fishing guide Pergish Carlson. During their meetings, Bowers-Cordalis sent this message: “What Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett need to understand is that Yurok people will never stop fighting until those dams are out.”
It seems as though those statements resonated. In November, I was back on the Klamath with a crew from Patagonia. We toured from Irongate Dam all the way down the length of the lower river and back over to Requa, where we met with Yurok tribal members Bowers-
Cordalis, Pergish, and Barry McCovey Jr., who is the head fisheries biologist for the Yurok Tribe.
While we were there, the news came out that a new agreement had been reached. Warren Buffett had brokered a deal between PacifiCorp and the states of California and Oregon. The two states agreed to become the co-licensees and take on future liability instead of PacifiCorp. In addition, both states pledged an additional $45 million as contingency money should any unforeseen costs arise throughout the dam removal process.
Buffett said the reworked deal solves a “very complex challenge.”
“I recognize the importance of Klamath dam removal and river restoration for tribal people in the Klamath Basin,” Buffett said in a statement. “We appreciate and respect our tribal partners for their collaboration in forging an agreement that delivers an exceptional outcome for the river, as well as future generations.”
FERC must still approve the deal. If accepted, it will allow PacifiCorp and Berkshire Hathaway to walk away from the albatross of aging dams, while addressing regulators’ concerns. Oregon, California, and the nonprofit KRRC would jointly take over the hydroelectric license from PacifiCorp, while the nonprofit will oversee the dam removal. The construction contracts have already been awarded to Kiewit Construction Company, and work is slated to begin in January of 2023.
When completed, this will be the largest river restoration project in history, a win for native fish, and a model for environmental economics. It also sets an important precedent for future dam removals.
“This latest development is a huge milestone for removing the four Klamath dams,” said CalTrout Executive Director Curtis Knight, who’s been involved in these negotiations for 18 years. “The Klamath is a resilient river. Removing these dams will open up a historic amount of habitat for salmon and steelhead to explore. It’s really unprecedented, and we look forward to watching and tracking the fish as they recolonize habitat they haven’t been able to access for 100 years.”
As Klamath dam removal moves closer and closer to reality, the KRRC with a broad coalition of longtime partners including American Rivers, CalTrout, TU, and Klamath-region tribes will continue work to ensure that the FERC license transfer goes smoothly at the federal level, and dam removal proceeds as planned.
I look forward to being one of the first people to float and fish the newly uncovered stretches of the mighty Klamath River, and document the recovery of the basin. I’ll be working with Shane Anderson, who was chosen by KRRC to make a documentary film to tell the story of the dam removals. We look forward to sharing the story of this amazing river and its recovery with our fellow fly fishers and conservationists.
Michael Wier grew up in the Sierra foothills, where he split his time between snowboarding and fly fishing. He spent 15 seasons fishing and guiding the waters of the Truckee, Carson, and Walker rivers. He also started BURL Productions, producing outdoor films like Trout Bum Diaries 1, Soulfish, and Cali Rush. He is a Patagonia ambassador and outreach coordinator for California Trout.