Klamath River Basin
The Klamath River Basin is one of the West’s most important and contentious watersheds.
The watershed, which bisects California and Oregon, is unusual. Unlike many major western rivers, the Klamath does not originate in snowcapped mountains but rather a high desert plateau. It’s considered an “upside-down river” because of its unusual geography.
Four rivers and a broad patchwork of springs, marshes and lakes in southern Oregon drain into Upper Klamath Lake, headwaters of the Klamath River. The 254-mile river carves its way through the steep Cascade Range and Klamath Mountains of northernmost California. It flows west to a redwood-lined estuary on the Pacific Ocean south of Crescent City, draining a basin of more than 15,000 square miles.
A bounty of resources – water, salmon, timber and minerals – and a wide range of users turned the remote region into a hotspot for economic development and endless, multiparty water disputes.
Negotiations that continue with increasing intensity to this day (See Klamath River timeline) include agricultural, environmental and tribal interests, namely the basin’s four major tribes: the Klamath Tribes, the Karuk, Hoopa Valley and Yurok.
Farmers and ranchers have drawn irrigation water from basin rivers since the late 1900s. Vast wetlands around Upper Klamath Lake and upstream were drained to grow crops. Some wetlands have been restored, primarily for migratory birds.
In 1905, the federal government authorized construction of the Klamath Project, a network of irrigation and hydroelectric dams, storage reservoirs and canals to grow an agricultural economy in the mostly dry Upper Basin. Today, the Project managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation services about 180,000 acres of farmland via canals from Upper Klamath Lake and Keno Reservoir.
Since 1992, federal mandates to restore populations of fish protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) have led, in some dry years, to deep severe cuts in water deliveries to Klamath Project irrigators.
In Upper Klamath Lake, the water must be kept above certain levels for the endangered shortnose and Lost River suckers. In the Klamath River below Iron Gate Dam, flows must be regulated for the benefit of the basin’s coho salmon, which are listed under the ESA as a threatened species (See Klamath Basin Chinook and Coho Salmon).
In 2001, Reclamation all but cut off irrigation water to hundreds of basin farmers and ranchers, citing a severe drought and legal obligations to protect imperiled fish. In response, thousands of farmers, ranchers and residents flocked to downtown Klamath Falls to form a “bucket brigade” protest, emptying buckets of water into the closed irrigation canal. The demonstrations stretched into the summer, with protestors forcing open the irrigation head gates on multiple occasions.
In 2002, an unprecedented disease outbreak in the lower reaches of the Klamath River killed tens of thousands of ocean-going salmon. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations sued Reclamation, alleging the Klamath Project’s irrigation deliveries had violated the ESA. The commercial ocean fishing industry eventually prevailed, and a federal court ordered an increase to minimum flows in the lower Klamath.
The massive salmon kill and dramatic water shut-off set in motion a sweeping compromise between the basin’s many competing water interests: the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. The 2010 agreements included:
- Removal of four hydroelectric dams
- $92.5 million over 10 years to pay farmers to use less water, increase reservoir storage and help pay for water conservation and groundwater management projects.
- $47 million over 10 years to buy or lease water rights to increase flows for salmon recovery.
Congress never funded the two agreements, allowing the key provisions to expire. The restoration accord dissolved in 2016. The hydroelectric pact, however, was revived in an amended version that did not require federal legislation. The new deal led to the nation’s largest dam removal project ever undertaken.
California and Oregon formed a nonprofit organization called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation to take control of the four essentially obsolete power dams – J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate – and oversee a $450 million dam demolition and river restoration project.
Taking out the dams will open more than 420 miles of river and spawning streams that had been blocked for more than a century, including cold water pools salmon and trout will need to survive the warming climate.
Demolition crews took out the smallest dam in 2023 and the others were scheduled to come down by the end of 2024.
The images of yellow heavy machinery tearing into the dam’s spillway gates prompted a cathartic release for many who have been fighting for decades to open this stretch of the Klamath.
“I’m still in a little bit of shock,” said Toz Soto, the Karuk fisheries program manager. “This is actually happening…It’s kind of like the dog that finally caught the car, except we’re chasing dam removal.”