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Deep Dive: Klamath River Dams

Take a deep dive into Klamath River dams!

The Klamath River, like many others in the Pacific Northwest and California, has been heavily impacted by humans – especially by the construction of dams. Four dams in particular have blocked migrating salmon for 100+ years. After years of negotiating, the owner of the dams (PacifiCorp) reached an agreement with Klamath Basin Tribes, the states of Oregon and California, and the federal government to remove the dams – which would be the largest U.S. dam removal project in history. This is big news for endangered salmon and Southern Resident orcas!

Header Image for Klamath River (1)

The four Lower Klamath River dams were due for relicensing to continue to operate. For new licenses, expensive and extensive upgrades would be required. So instead, PacifiCorp, the private company that owns the dams, put dam removal on the table. Stakeholders in the Klamath Basin were working together to find a solution for water rights and salmon recovery, and dam removal was included in the agreements.  Resources in a watershed (water and habitat, mostly) are usually subject to fierce battles between different interests, and in an unprecedented move, stakeholders who had been at odds for years came together to develop a collaborative path forward, which included dam removal.

The stakeholder negotiations led to two agreements to remove the dams and restore the Klamath Basin. Those plans needed approval from Congress, which failed to pass the needed legislation multiple times despite these historic agreements, support from people throughout the region, and the sign-off from the company that owned the dams. In 2015, the agreements expired, and the future of the dams was up in the air.

Luckily, the states of California & Oregon, federal agencies, PacifiCorp, and Klamath Basin Tribes quickly came together in 2016 to develop a new agreement that didn’t need Congressional approval, but did need sign-off from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), a federal agency that regulates hydropower projects in the U.S. This required an additional complex process involving multiple state permits and approval from FERC on two key steps: transferring the dams to a non-profit that was set up specifically to oversee their removal, and approval to stop using the dams, decommission, and tear them down.

After some questionable delays, FERC has completed its environmental review of dam removal and determined that there would be significant benefits to the Klamath River and salmon.  The public has a chance to weigh in on this review and support the final Record of Decision for dam removal.  As long as there are no more delays, the dams are still on timeline to come down in 2023.

This project has been delayed long enough.  We will keep working to make sure Southern Resident orcas are considered and that they get the salmon they need as the final permit is determined.

Map of Klamath River

The Klamath River watershed in Northern California and Southern Oregon.  The Klamath meets the ocean in Northern California: the south/central portion of the Southern Resident orcas’ coastal range. They’re usually in this area in the winter and early spring.

How does this affect Southern Resident orcas?

The Klamath River was once a significant source of Chinook salmon, the Southern Residents’ main food. The dams have not only blocked access to historic habitat for salmon, they have caused river conditions that more easily spread disease and have higher temperatures that are deadly for salmon – meaning less food is available for Southern Resident orcas in their coastal habitat.  Removing the dams could increase the abundance of Klamath Basin Chinook by up to 80% - a lot more food available for hungry orcas.

Southern Resident whales

What has WDC been doing about this?

The Klamath River dams were the subject of our first-ever “Don’t Let Orcas be Dammed” campaign in 2014 & 2015. We supported the initial agreements and highlighted the potential benefits to Southern Resident orcas, and gathered signatures from thousands of our supporters to share with PacifiCorp and members of Congress. After Congress failed to pass legislation, we engaged in the state permitting process in Oregon and California, and submitted information and expert input to FERC to emphasize the ecosystem-wide benefits of dam removal, including how salmon recovery would help Southern Resident orcas.

What can you do?

All parties have remained committed to restoring the Klamath River, and we’re almost to the finish line.  We will continue to watch this process to make sure it stays on track, and right now you can share your support to the states of Oregon and California and to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to remind them how much this will help Southern Resident orcas.

Call or Email- Governors of Oregon and Washington.

Tweet at them - @FERC @OregonGovBrown @CAgovernor

Sample Tweet - "The four Klamath River dams must come down ASAP.  Restoring the Klamath River protects salmon and Southern Resident orcas. I support #UnDamtheKlamath!"

Want to learn about another Pacific Northwest river that could make a big difference for salmon and Southern Resident orcas? Learn about the Snake River!