Chinook salmon.

Chinook salmon. Mark Conlin / VWPics / Alamy Stock Photo

On the Klamath, Dam Removal May Come Too Late to Save the Salmon

The planned demolition of dams on the Klamath River was expected to help restore the beleaguered salmon on which Indigenous tribes depend. But after a record drought and wildfire this summer, many are worried the salmon could be all but gone before the dams come down.

The removal of four obsolescent hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, expected in 2023 or 2024, should have been an occasion for celebration, recognizing an underdog campaign that managed to set in motion the biggest dam removal project in American history.

But that was before the basin’s troubles turned biblical.

The main reason for removing the dams is that they have played a major role in decimating the basin’s salmon population, to the point that some runs have gone extinct and all others are in severe decline — and the basin’s four Indigenous tribal groups, whose cultures and diets all revolve around fish, have suffered as the fish have dwindled. But this year the basin has experienced so many kinds of climate-change-linked plagues — a paradigm-shattering drought, the worst grasshopper infestation in a generation, and a monster fire — that it’s uncertain whether the remaining salmon will survive long enough to benefit from the dams’ dismantling.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. The Klamath River basin. Four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath — the Copco № 1, Copco № 2, J.C. Boyle, and Iron Gate dams — are slated for removal.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. The Klamath River basin. Four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath — the Copco № 1, Copco № 2, J.C. Boyle, and Iron Gate dams — are slated for removal. Klamath River Renewal Project

“The Klamath salmon are now on a course toward extinction in the near term,” Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe, whose reservation covers the Klamath’s last 45 miles to the Pacific Ocean, declared in April. That was in response to the presence below Iron Gate Dam, the dam farthest downstream, of an infectious parasite called Ceratonova shasta whose spread was accelerated by climate-change-driven high water temperatures and low flows. In March C. shasta killed most of a year class of juvenile salmon making its way downriver. One sample found that 97 percent of tested juveniles were infected and 63 percent were expected to die. All the more ominous, those statistics didn’t take into account fish that had already died.

“When you’re looking at these numbers, as a fish biologist, you’re just thinking, ‘Oh shit, we’re losing them,’” said Mike Belchik, the Yurok Tribe’s senior biologist.

Until white settlers introduced logging, mining, farming, ranching, and the ultimate insult, dams, the Klamath was the Pacific Coast’s third-largest salmon fishery. The disappearance of salmon would harm a vast menagerie of other animals: at least 137 other fish and wildlife species depend on salmons’ heroic life cycle, which ends in a burst of grit and athleticism as they bring upstream the nutrients they’ve consumed in the ocean, then spawn and die. Orcas, brown and black bears, bald eagles, and river otters all depend in one way or another on salmon. The carcasses of these keystone species nourish the river banks’ trees, whose limbs provide shade for juvenile fish and whose roots prevent erosion, a threat to water quality. Take all that away, as is happening in the Klamath, and the result is accelerated, perhaps irreversible, decline.

The water demands of farmers, ranchers, and environmental services are far greater than what the system can deliver.

“Salmon are the underpinnings of everything else,” said Steve Pedery, conservation director at Oregon Wild, a Portland-based environmental nonprofit. “We’ve seen it across the Pacific Northwest — when we start pulling salmon out of the equation, ecosystems collapse in the absence of them.”

The Klamath is merely the hardest-hit of drought-stricken regions across most of the American West; as of late August, 76.4 million Westerners were affected by drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. It’s indicative of the drought’s unprecedented duration and intensity that for the first time the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation declared an emergency at Lake Mead, the nation’s biggest reservoir, now 65 percent empty, and slashed Colorado River water deliveries to Arizona farmers by nearly 20 percent beginning next January. Farmers throughout the West can expect deeper cuts in the near future.

Droughts are common in the Klamath Basin, “but this drought was really different in lots of ways,” Belchik said. “We had 80 percent snowpack in the southern Cascades, so it didn’t even look like a drought at first. But the snow runoff never showed up.” Instead, soil, already dried out by the long-running drought, sopped it up — it swallowed the snowpack.

Rancher Justin Grant moves his cattle from a parched grazing field in Klamath Falls, Oregon in July.

Rancher Justin Grant moves his cattle from a parched grazing field in Klamath Falls, Oregon in July. Nathan Howard / AP

Deprived of its customary cold mountain water, the Klamath River delivered warm water temperatures and low flows, perfect conditions for the proliferation of C. shasta. The drought left the river system so parched that for the first time the Bureau of Reclamation, which allocates water to the Klamath’s users, had none to distribute — not for salmon, whose survival against C. shasta depends on at least moderate flows; not for the basin’s already-struggling farmers and ranchers, most of whom rely on irrigated water; and, at the bottom of the pecking order, not for two national wildlife refuges that are crucial stopping points for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.

Downstream, the Yurok and Karuk tribes, struggling for decades with the disappearance of salmon from their diets and cultures, argued for a release of water — a “flushing flow” — from the upper river that could have swept away a substantial portion of the worms that host C. shasta. But the bureau said it had no water to spare. In fact, the shortage made it impossible for the bureau to meet its legal obligations to provide sufficient water for endangered salmon in the lower river and endangered suckerfish in Upper Klamath Lake and to deliver water to farmers in the upper basin.

Those failures led most of the parties vying for water to sue the bureau or the Oregon Water Resources Department, even pitting tribes against one another, but none of the litigation could overcome the basic fact that there is not nearly enough water to go around. The drought has made obvious what was true long before climate change’s effects began to register: the water demands of Klamath farmers, ranchers, and environmental services are far greater than what the system can deliver.

The Yurok Tribe closed its commercial fishery for the fifth straight year and tribespeople did without their traditional salmon meals.

As the water supply dwindles, the decade-long decline of the upper basin’s farming industry has accelerated. The value of farm property has dropped, forcing farmers to borrow more money on less equity, leaving them fewer resources to tend to their crops. The price of hay has soared, if it’s available at all, leaving ranchers without a way to feed their increasingly emaciated cattle. Without fodder, many ranchers have been forced to cull part or all of their herds, causing beef prices to drop precipitously. And the more cows that ranchers sell, the less likely they can recover in ensuing years. In the meantime, many farmers and ranchers with functioning wells are relying on a decreasing supply of groundwater: they’ve pumped so much water this year that some rural upper basin homeowners lost running water when their wells went dry.

At the upper basin’s Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a critical rest stop and breeding area for waterfowl and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway, what was a vibrant lake and wetlands two centuries ago is now a “giant mud puddle,” as a local reporter put it. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have had to consolidate the refuge’s last two remaining wetlands into one in hopes of warding off botulism, a heat-triggered disease that last year killed at least 60,000 ducks in Tule Lake and the nearby Lower Klamath National Refuge. The two refuges are all that remain of what was once vast mid-migration bird and waterfowl habitat. A half-century ago, about 7 million waterfowl passed through the Klamath; now a million waterfowl would constitute a good year. The absence of water in the refuges means that the birds will arrive earlier than usual at rice fields in California’s Sacramento River Valley, where they likely will consume part of the rice crop before it is harvested.

On top of the drought came the grasshoppers. Their population inflated by recent years of warm, dry, ever-shortening winters, this summer they swarmed over parts of 15 states, nowhere more intensely than in Oregon. Todd Adams, the Oregon grasshopper survey coordinator, said that for six weeks beginning in late May, bands of black grasshoppers covered so much ground that some Klamath ranchland looked entirely black, as the grasshoppers consumed whatever grasses had survived the drought, then ate sagebrush after the pasture disappeared.

The Iron Gate Dam on the lower Klamath River.

The Iron Gate Dam on the lower Klamath River. Gillian Flaccus / AP

Then came Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, a 39-day conflagration that for a time was the biggest fire in the United States. It turned conditions in upper basin ranchland from dreadful to hellish. Beginning on July 6, it consumed 645 square miles, covering an area more than twice as big as New York City’s five boroughs. The fire burned with a speed and intensity that experienced firefighters had never encountered before, according to Tamara Schmidt, a National Forest Service public affairs officer. Ranchers battled their emotions as they carried out the gruesome task of trying to save their cattle from the fire while also killing those that had already been badly burnt. The fire consumed vast tracts of pasture, which meant that many ranchers had no food for their rescued animals and no place to put them. Runoff from the burnt area is likely to carry nutrient-laden sediment that will promote toxic algae growth in the already highly-polluted Upper Klamath Lake.

Downstream, the Yurok Tribe closed its commercial salmon fishery for the fifth straight year, and local Yurok and Karuk tribespeople largely did without salmon meals — an omission that over decades had already resulted in huge increases in diabetes, heart disease, hunger, and poverty. And because of the drought in the Klamath, virtually all of the offshore Chinook salmon fishing areas were closed to Pacific Northwest fishermen, whose fleet had already declined by 80 percent over the last three decades, according to Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

As the basin’s woes intensify, fondness has grown among some tribes, farmers, and environmental groups in the basin for an updated revival of a set of stunning agreements reached between 2010 and 2014 among most of the basin’s chief constituents that called for dam removal, river restoration, and equitable sharing of the basin’s limited resources. A major portion of those agreements required congressional approval, which Tea Party Republicans including the Upper Klamath’s own Congressman blocked in late 2015 because of disapproval of dam removal. It’s a painful irony that dam removal managed to move forward without congressional action, but now it will proceed without the benefit of the other agreements, which would have made salmon recovery — and basin economic recovery — more likely.

Yurok Fisheries Department technicians Gilbert Myers (left) and Jamie Holt (right) look for juvenile salmon in a trap as they monitor an outbreak of the C. shasta parasite along the Klamath in June..

Yurok Fisheries Department technicians Gilbert Myers (left) and Jamie Holt (right) look for juvenile salmon in a trap as they monitor an outbreak of the C. shasta parasite along the Klamath in June.. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

While many farmers and lower basin tribal members in California favor renewed negotiations over water allocations, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon, a conglomeration of three upper basin Indigenous groups, have shown no interest, chiefly because in 2013 a 38-year-long adjudication process finally acknowledged the Tribes’ senior water rights in the upper basin. The Tribes have used that designation to cut off water deliveries to farmers and ranchers during the drought. Instead, they have directed water into Upper Klamath Lake, where their sacred fish, two species of suckers known to the Tribes as c’waam and koptu, are in grave, almost certainly terminal decline.

One source of relief to many residents is that while the Tribes’ water cut-offs have heightened tensions with farmers and ranchers, the discontent has not boiled over into angry protest, unlike during a previous drought in 2001. Then it was the Bureau of Reclamation that cut off water to farmers mid-season to support endangered salmon downstream. Enraged farmers formed a symbolic bucket brigade to carry water illegally to their fields and attracted the support of Ammon Bundy, a well-known anti-government property rights advocate. But this time around, efforts by a few pro-Bundy farmers to marshal support for civil disobedience have fallen flat.

Meanwhile, dam removal still awaits final approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A favorable decision is likely, but FERC has indicated that it doesn’t plan on issuing its ruling until September 2022, which would push back demolition to early 2024. Removal would provide an immediate boost to salmon, and the fishes’ condition is so precarious that every passing year increases the threat of extinction. Removal advocates have called on FERC to speed up its decision-making process by five months, which could enable demolition a year earlier, as soon as January 2023. Delay increases odds of the unthinkable: a hard-fought, two-decade-long campaign to restore wild salmon that culminates in dam removal in a river largely without them.