A new chapter is beginning in the complex history of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River at the California and Oregon border in the US. The Iron Gate, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and J.C. Boyle dams were built between 1903 and 1962 to provide hydroelectric power for a growing area. Today, these dams provide less than two percent of PacifiCorp’s power and are not operated for flood control, irrigation diversion, or storage for farmers and ranchers. Their presence has had many unintended consequences including compromised water quality and negative impacts on fish and local people.

Conflict and collaboration

The plan to remove the dams was born from a decades-long desire among competing interests to find resolution to the complex challenges of managing and protecting limited natural resources.

Historically, the Klamath basin has been home to many Native American tribes. Newer communities comprised of farmers and ranchers, loggers, and commercial and recreational fishermen have also benefited from the Klamath’s resources.

The Klamath River once was the third most productive site for salmon, steelhead, and trout on the West Coast. But the dams make it impossible for salmon and other migrating fish to access more than 400 stream miles of historic habitat in cold-water tributaries, blocking spawning grounds, and resulting in severe declines in fish populations. The reservoir’s house warm, nutrient-rich water that breeds toxin-producing algae, creating water quality problems downstream.

The struggling river environment creates many difficulties for the once-thriving communities. As the river's health declined, citizens of the basin came into conflict with one another to protect their families, communities, environment, and ways of life. Klamath leaders, with varying interests in the river, began developing collaborative solutions to restore river health and address many broader concerns. The original Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement were signed in 2010.

Creating KRRC

Congress failed to act in time to implement the original agreements, leading stakeholders to amend the KHSA in 2016 to facilitate dam removal through a regulatory approval process at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This agreement to restore the river for the benefit of all residents of the basin is the result of years of hard work, meticulous planning, scientific research, and compromise among many stakeholders.

The signatories of the agreement, including the US Department of the Interior, the National Marine Fisheries Service, agencies of the States of Oregon and California, PacifiCorp, tribal governments, and fishing and conservation groups, created an independent nonprofit corporation, the Klamath River Restoration Corporation (KRRC), to perform the work to remove the dams.

KRRC’s sole purpose is to take ownership of the dams from their current owner – PacifiCorp – then remove them, restore formerly inundated lands, and implement required mitigation measures in compliance with all applicable regulations. Project funding comes from PacifiCorp customers in California and Oregon and bond money from California’s Proposition 1, earmarked for ecosystem and watershed protection and water supply infrastructure projects.

Planning and regulatory approvals are underway     

In 2016, KRRC took the first steps to remove the dams by filing Transfer and Surrender applications with FERC. FERC currently is reviewing these applications and retained an independent Board of Consultants to supplement the agency’s expertise and support its assessments. KRRC’s proposal will go through rigorous federal and state regulatory reviews to ensure the project is in the best long-term interest of the public and the environment.

KRRC is optimistic and continues to plan for the day deconstruction will begin. The corporation has performed site assessments and engineering studies leading to the development of the Definite Plan for the Lower Klamath Project, filed with FERC on June 28, 2018.

The 2300-page Definite Plan provides comprehensive analysis and detail on project design, dam removal, reservoir restoration, and other post-deconstruction activities, including information on KRRC’s plans for local enhancements and mitigations to minimise project impacts, including flood proofing, road and bridge improvements, groundwater monitoring, and potential new recreation facilities. Based on latest projections, the project cost is roughly US$398M.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued its final Clean Water Act Section 401 water quality certification on 7 September 2018, marking a significant milestone in the process. The California State Water Resources Control Board issued its draft 401 Certification in June, and the final is expected in 2019 following completion of a California Environmental Quality Act analysis. KRRC will also require a Clean Water Act Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a Biological Opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Services and Fish and Wildlife Service, among other permits.

In the meantime, KRRC is securing the engineering and construction resources needed for dam removal and site restoration. KRRC will soon issue a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for the dam removal design-build contract, followed by a Request for Proposals (RFP) at the end of the year. The selected firm will operate under a Progressive Design-Build (PDB) delivery method which includes the design and construction of road and bridge access improvements to accommodate construction vehicles/traffic; bridge and culvert improvements to accommodate new river/creek geometry; dam modifications required for drawdown; reservoir drawdown; dam and hydropower facilities removal; recreation facilities removal; and restoration of former reservoirs and other disturbed areas.

Pending regulatory approval, this massive project will take place in phases, beginning with site preparation in mid-2020 and deconstruction expected to begin in 2021. Reservoir drawdown for all four dams will be executed concurrently during the high-flow winter season in order to avoid major fish runs. The reservoirs will be slowly drawn down to the level of existing dam gates and spillways, and the maximum flow will be capped at a level that would be typical for a wet season. This process will take two to three months. Dam deconstruction and facilities removal will follow. Finally, KRRC will implement a comprehensive, adaptive, and long-term reservoir restoration program to promote native vegetation, natural river function, and enhanced wildlife/fish habitats so the river and floodplain can perform similarly to before the dams were built.  

The environment

The goal of dam removal is to re-establish the natural vitality of the Klamath River so it can support all communities in the basin. Restoring the river to natural, free-flowing conditions will improve water quality and support fish populations in the Klamath River over the long-term.

The potential impacts and benefits of Klamath dam removal have been extensively studied during the last decade. Large bodies of evidence, including comprehensive, peer-reviewed studies have concluded that dam removal will improve water quality in a variety of important ways like reducing summer water temperatures, decreasing acidity, substantially mitigating toxic algae and fish disease, and increasing dissolved oxygen concentrations.

While removing the dams will have some short-term impacts, scientists expect net benefits to aquatic species in the long-term because of improved habitat, reduced disease and better water quality. For example, there will be some short-term impacts to fish from increased sediment levels in the first two-years following reservoir drawdown. In the long-run, more natural river flows and sediment will have a huge benefit by 1) providing the gravels and substrates fish need for proper reproduction; and 2) disturbing the habitat of the polychaete worm, which serves as an intermediate host for the highly pathogenic fish disease C. shasta that kills many salmon. Reduction in C. shasta disease may, in turn, reduce regulatory requirements to protect fish through flushing flows which can affect deliveries to farmers in the upper Klamath basin. Because the health of the river and endangered fish are inextricably linked to the health of the region, the benefits from dam removal will be far-reaching.

The economics

Removing the dams also makes economic sense for local communities. Dams must be relicensed every 30 to 50 years, and each time, their owners must comply with the latest water quality standards, fish passage regulations, and any other relicensing requirements of FERC. Upgrading the ageing dams to current standards would be a costly endeavor paid for by PacifiCorp customers. Both the Oregon and California Public Utilities Commissions agreed that it is in the electric customers’ best interests to implement the KHSA, which includes both a customer cost cap and liability protection, in lieu of expensive, uncapped upgrades.

Furthermore, the major construction associated with removing four dams will be a local boon. Dam removal efforts will directly create roughly 400 positions through contracts, subcontracts, or direct hiring. Another 1400 indirect, regional jobs will be created during dam deconstruction, bringing a significant economic boost to the region. The long-term economic advantages from a healthier river will include the potential for increased travel and tourism and the revival of commercial and tribal fisheries.

The dams’ evolving history

The lower Klamath project will be the largest dam removal in U.S. history and a bright new chapter in the Klamath basin’s history. The management of water rights, water quality, and aquatic resources in a manner that protects local communities, tribes, agriculture, and other businesses is by no means simple. While dam removal will not fix all the region’s complex challenges, many stakeholders agree that it is a necessary and obvious first step.


Complete details about the Klamath River dam removal project can be found at  www.klamathrenewal.org.