The 132-foot-high Copco 1 Dam, on the Klamath River outside Hornbrook, California, has generated power for nearly a century. Now, its owner has set in motion a plan to dismantle it, if approved by federal energy regulators.

The 132-foot-high Copco 1 Dam, on the Klamath River outside Hornbrook, California, has generated power for nearly a century. Now, its owner has set in motion a plan to dismantle it, if approved by federal energy regulators. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

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Our metal powerboat is puttering near a bend low in the Klamath River. Morning fog pours off the hills against a flat gray sky, but we can see a fight up around a bird’s nest.

“The eagles are perched up here in the tree,” says Mike Belchik, a fisheries biologist for the Yurok tribe, whose lands extend 44 miles from the Pacific Coast inland. “The osprey is dive-bombing them.”

Belchik claps loudly to break up the birds. “They both live around here and they fight all the time,” he laughs.

People along the Klamath once fought bitterly over this river, too. But that’s beginning to change.

Four hydroelectric dams may soon be demolished along the Klamath, near the California-Oregon border. Hundreds of miles of the Klamath would run free to the Pacific Ocean — opening up the largest river restoration in U.S. history.

What’s made this possible is compromise, forged over years of negotiation, among upriver and downriver interests, in California and Oregon, farmers and tribes and fishery advocates.

Two incidents of deep and painful loss, in 2001 and 2002, sparked this new era. First, the federal Bureau of Reclamation cut off water supplies to almost all irrigators on the Klamath Irrigation Project upriver, to protect water flows to endangered fish, including salmon. Angry farmers who were losing their crops converged at the main irrigation canal’s controls in Klamath Falls, Oregon, turning the water back on. A crowd of 18,000 cheered them on.

The next year, when irrigators once again were able to take water from the river, Belchik says the resulting low flows were deadly downriver.

“We started getting calls about dead fish,” he says, standing along the riverbank. “There’s tens of thousands of fish, rotting fish, big 20-pound salmon, four deep on all of the shorelines.” He wrinkles his nose. “The smell more than the look. It smells like death.”

Tens of thousands of salmon were killed on the Klamath in 2002 when water deliveries to farmers resulted in deadly low flows downriver.
Tens of thousands of salmon were killed on the Klamath in 2002 when water deliveries to farmers resulted in deadly low flows downriver. (Courtesy Northcoast Environment Center)

Now with broad political support, the power company that owns the dams, PacifiCorp, has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to give up its licenses so that four dams, three in California, can be blasted and jackhammered away.

PacifiCorp shareholders will contribute $200 million toward dam removal. California will contribute up to $250 million more in Proposition 1 money, to pay for removal and river recovery, under an agreement signed in April at the mouth of the river.

Gov. Jerry Brown said the goal now is sustainability. “Not for the next election cycle but for eons and thousands of years,” he said. “That’s the significance here. We’re starting to get it right after so many years of getting it wrong.”

Like a lot of Western rivers, the Klamath has been a workhorse serving the people around it. Inland and upriver, its water goes to irrigators on a federal project, farms and grazing in two states. Over the last century four dams harnessed its energy. The oldest hydroelectric dam is Copco 1, which is 132 feet steep between rock walls trailing bright green moss.

Water spills down the mossy face of the Copco 1 Dam, on the Klamath River outside Hornbrook.
Water spills down the mossy face of the Copco 1 Dam, on the Klamath River outside Hornbrook. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

Cheap, reliable hydropower made at Copco helped upriver irrigators pump water to crops and cattle. Standing atop it, PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely says the company has made money for shareholders. “Removing these dams is not something that the company had set out to do,” he says now.

But environmental laws put on the books after dams were built changed the equation. Gravely says PacifiCorp would have spent hundreds of millions of dollars updating dams to protect fish and water quality, in compliance with the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, among others. “This is the least cost outcome for our customers that we have,” he says.

It’s not often that a private company seeks to get rid of its own dams. The petition to federal regulators is kind of an end run around Congress and its politics.

Five years ago, a broad coalition of river interests agreed on a plan to allocate water resources, protect economic interests, and yes, remove dams. The deal required congressional action. But nothing happened.

Yurok Tribal Vice Chair David Gensaw, Jr. is worried about the future of salmon and trout in tribal waters near where the Klamath meets the sea.
Yurok Tribal Vice Chair David Gensaw, Jr. is worried about the future of salmon and trout in tribal waters near where the Klamath meets the sea. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

Still, it’s not a done deal. FERC will receive public comment on the decision, and some of it will come from fiercely independent rural Siskiyou County, where 80 percent of voters oppose dam removal, period.

Siskiyou County Supervisor Grace Bennett says she’s suspicious of the science underpinning dam removal, and the financial risks of such a major change.

“We want answers,” she says. “And we want to be not held responsible when this — and I’m going to say this ‘grand experiment,’ which we feel we’re in the middle of — doesn’t turn out the way we want. And they leave us doing lots of damage to our county.”

Even if the dams are removed, two major questions remain for the Klamath Basin: How to share water and how to help fish recover. Dozens of local stakeholders are starting to hash out those questions, including Oregon rancher Becky Hyde. Congressional opposition or inaction could still get in the way of compromise. But Hyde says she hopes local interests triumph.

Scott Seus (L) and Gary Derry say they're worried about their farming future in the absence of an agreement to share water along the Klamath River. Irrigators like them have rights, but so do environmental interests like fish and wildlife refuges, and tribal interests downriver.
Scott Seus (L) and Gary Derry say they’re worried about their farming future in the absence of an agreement to share water along the Klamath River. Irrigators like them have rights, but so do environmental interests like fish and wildlife refuges, and tribal interests downriver. (Molly Peterson/KQED)

“I don’t think a healthy Klamath is solely dependent on whether or not the U.S. Congress decides to pay attention,” Hyde says. “We decide. We choose while we wait for them to wake up. We choose how to treat each other while we wait for them to start making wise choices.”

In this basin, those choices are personal, says Oregon alfalfa farmer Gary Derry. After the water shut off in 2001, his son moved away. Now his younger daughter is weighing the same choice.

“I don’t want to see my kids leave. I don’t want to see anybody down the river, their kids leave,” Derry says. He points out his daughter is graduating with a soil science degree. “I want to get back to where we have a river community, top to bottom, that can survive. That’s what I want.”

If regulators approve dam decommissioning, hundreds of miles of river would open up for fish and people. Copco 1 and the other three dams would go silent in four years.

Removal of Klamath Dams Would Be Largest River Restoration in U.S. History 25 October,2016Molly Peterson
  • Anita Koenig

    So, who is making up for the energy shortfall? Are you all out of your fing mind?? In times like this, when we need more electricity than ever before?? You can thank God that consumers are not switching to e-cars all at the same time, otherwise you could say goodby to the grid! If anything, we URGENTLY need MORE HYDROPOWER!!!

    • Lisa

      Anita, we could always, you know, do something wild & crazy like develop a solid and sensible solar infrastructure… We could have more (clean) energy stored than we’d know what do do with if we roofed every house and business and covered parking lots, etc., throughout the US, throughout the world…

      • Rick Drysdale

        At what cost financially and environmentally? There is a huge cost because solar is not clean . These dams sit there not polluting , producing clean electricity and now they want to tear them down? The water is used to irrigate farms that produce food for Americans and now they want to do what? btw the pictures of the dead salmon . All salmon die after mating. The dams are not an impediment to them because there are fish ladders all along the river. I love it when they speak of compromise . The green stake holders , people from New York or Washington , make the decisions and others are expected to fall in line.

        • Betty Anthony

          I was wondering about the fish ladders. I had read about them way back in school. What do they teach in school now a days except to be PC?

        • Eli Luoma

          Salmon is food, too. A healthy river with lots of salmon means lots of food.
          The reason those salmon died wasn’t that they had just spawned, it was water temperatures that were too high. Less water in the river means higher water temps.

          • Frank Matyus

            and without the dams, we will surely see the death of Salmon in the next drought

          • Eli Luoma

            Dams increase surface area of the water in the lakes they create. This increases evaporation and raises the temperature of the water. If you remove the dams and slow the water with tree stumps and have shade along the river, you increase the water in the system.

            Or, if you are correct, the salmon are as good as dead anyway when the next drought occurs. Either water will be held back for irrigation or there won’t be enough water in the system.

            If the brakes don’t work, why steer?

        • dc

          The dams are an impediment to salmon, regardless of the presence of fish ladders that have mixed effectiveness – see http://e360.yale.edu/feature/blocked_migration_fish_ladders_on_us_dams_are_not_effective/2636/

          Dam removal quickly results in restoration of the ecosystem/river system.
          http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2014/oct/rivers-recover-natural-conditions-quickly-following-dam-removal

          • Frank Matyus

            and without the dams, we will surely see the death of Salmon in the next drought, if the experts think there will be cold water for salmon in the late summer months, this will come as a surprise, even the Klamath will warm up in the dry years, not good for the fish

  • John Dapper

    California is over populated.Much of the population in areas with limited or no water. No politician will talk about that. Is it worth destroying the environment to try and support an unsustainable population? And keep cheap electric power for what, more population growth? Let Southern California recycle their toilet water if they want to keep increasing population. Cities spreading like a plague, killing every living thing in their path.

    • Natronimus Maximus

      this part of california / oregon is sparsely populated.

      • John Dapper

        Not sparsely populated to me. What do the Indians think? I bet they thought this area had enough people 200 years ago.

    • Betty Anthony

      Maybe California should build a fence to keep other Americans and immigrants out? Seems that Californians did not do so well keeping out the Dust Bowl immigrants or any others from around the world. That is what made the US. Ever think that maybe Californians now don’t want any more coming in?

      • John Dapper

        When is America full? The west was settled 100 years ago. We have 90 some million people without jobs. Wages are stagnant or falling. Almost all problems of America can be traced to overpopulation. Traffic, pollution, loss of natural resources, crowded cities, high rents. What more do we want to screw up.

  • Walter Crunch

    Good riddance. These are relics of he past. …not the future.

  • 16 TONS

    Hydro is one of the lowest impact energy sources – not sure why the article didn’t discuss simply draining or increase water flow – mothballing the dam makes more sense than demolition

  • Frank Matyus

    environmentals need to be held accountable for their actions, enough of this foolish carp
    every improvement they claim has failed, look into the history of these crazy people

  • David J. Ingraham

    There is along history of major flooding along this river drainage, these dams have been instrumental n controlling these floods since they were built. The dams do keep water storage constant and water flow constant, to support down stream fisheries, the existing fish hatcheries keep fish in the river. to improve down stream fish survival, all is needed is to to install refrigerated cooling piping in the river flow down stream of Iron Gate Dam .The system was used to cool water discharge from the dam on the Sacramento River at Redding

Author

Molly Peterson

Molly Peterson is an independent reporter based in Los Angeles, covering environment, science and climate change.