Klamath River Dam Removal Controversy

The excellent fishing in the Klamath Basin should get even better when 4 impassable dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon are removed (J.C. Boyle, Copco 1 & 2, and Irongate).  Dam removal will improve conditions for resident redband trout as well as allow for reintroduction of anadromous fish into their prime historical spawning habitat in the rivers and streams above Klamath Lake.  On Thursday I was at a Klamath Lake Land Trust event where I was able to speak with Dave Meurer of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the organization that will soon own the dams and be charged with their removal.

Dave was confident that the dams will come out starting in January 2022 with removal completed within 18 months.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has not made its final ruling on the matter, but the KRRC has met all the hurdles that FERC has required.  This is excellent news.  Restoring much of the Klamath River and providing for the potential of anadromous fish reintroduction is a clear win for anglers.  Two dams, Keno and Link River, will remain in Oregon near Klamath Falls but both have fish passage.  Passage at Link River is good, passage at Keno will need to be improved to accommodate fish the size of salmon.  The Bureau of Reclamation is looking at that.

Also, between these two upper most dams there is a slow moving stretch of water that has very low dissolved oxygen levels in the summer and fall that is inhospitable to fish.  This is the time of year when some adult anadromous fish will attempt to move through this section on their way to historical spawning grounds.  There are no plans to address DO deficiency.

ODFW is in the process of planning anadromous fish reintroduction following dam removal.  The plans are not finalized and have not been approved by the ODFW Commission.  So far, however, the draft plan is to allow for the natural reintroduction of steelhead, fall chinook, coho, and lamprey.  These fish have viable populations in the lower Klamath River and will be allowed to recolonize the upper river and basin on their own.

Spring chinook, however, only have a tenuous finger hold in the Trinity and Salmon river watersheds, tributaries of the Klamath near where the it meets the Pacific in California.  Most of these are hatchery fish.  While some fish are counted as “wild”, with interbreeding over many decades it is not clear how many truly wild spring chinook actually exist at all.

Not only are these spring chinook populations small, they inhabit an environment very different than the upper Klamath River and spawning rivers above Klamath Lake.  The Trinity and Salmon watersheds are amazingly clean and free of pathogens and parasites, which is very different from the upper Klamath.  Unlike steelhead, coho, and fall chinook in the Klamath River which have developed resistance to parasites such as C. Shasta, it is not clear if the Trinity and Salmon river spring chinook can survive in the upper basin even if they attempted the much longer upriver journey than they have made in a very long time.

While there is praise for dam removal in the angling community, there is criticism as well.  The most recent issue of The Osprey, for example, has a scathing and inaccurate article on Klamath River dam removal.  They get much wrong from the number of dams that will be removed (it’s 4, not 3) to plans for the use of hatchery fish.  I am a subscriber to, and fan of, The Osprey, (you should be a subscriber too) and understand the passion around the hatchery vs. wild issue, but details matter.

In response to requests from commercial anglers and local tribes, California does plan to continue fall chinook hatchery operations for 8 years after the dams are removed.  (Spring chinook stopped returning to the Irongate hatchery 40+ years ago.)  One can argue that all hatchery operations should be stopped but to claim that the river is going to be “flooded with maladapted” hatchery salmon and steelhead in an effort to jump start reintroduction is simply not true.

Some in the angling community argue that nature should be allowed to take its course, and, over time, all anadromous fish including spring chinook will repopulate the upper stretches on their own.  The agencies agree with this for all populations other than spring chinook.  They argue that natural repopulation by spring chinook could take a very long time, if ever, and a short term, limited effort should be undertaken to reintroduce spring chinook.  They plan to release fry into the upper basin, an effort that would be discontinued once adults return in sufficient numbers.

It’s a tough call.  My instinct is to stop all hatchery operations on the Klamath River and see what happens, but spring chinook have been extirpated from the upper river for over 100 years.  (Gold mining in the Klamath killed them far before the dams were installed.)  Spring chinook have not made it up to Irongate in decades and they would have to go much farther to get to their historical spawning grounds.  Given the behavior and compromised genetic makeup of the few remaining spring chinook in the lower river, why do we think they would successfully repopulate the upper basin?  Again, it’s a tough call.

Nature is a powerful force and generally should be left alone but we have altered much of it.  I’m glad I’m not making the decision.