The second largest river in California, the Klamath was once among the most productive salmon rivers in North America. Drawing its headwaters from Southern Oregon’s Klamath Lake it drains southwest into California before meeting with it’s largest tributary the Trinity and ultimately running to the Ocean north of Eureka. Early accounts of the Klamath tell of a river with extraordinary returns of Chinook, steelhead and coho but for much of the last century, dams have blocked salmon from several hundred miles of habitat in the upper Klamath. There is also significant conflict between agricultural interests in the Klamath Basin and groups working to restore listed salmon which came to a head in 2001 when warm temperatures and poor water quality precipitated one of the largest fish kills ever recorded on the Lower Klamath.
Since that time significant progress has been made, and in 2008 with relicensing looming, stakeholders in the Klamath agreed on a deal to remove the four Klamath dams by 2020. While the removal of Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and JC Boyle dams would restore salmon to hundreds of miles of river, critics argue that the 2008 deal does not address long standing issues of water quality and quantity in the Klamath, by failing to guarantee instream flows for fish in the Klamath. Arguments over details of the settlement may be made irrelevant as funding for the project must be approved by congress before 2012 or the settlement is void. Should that occur, the dams owner, fishing and agricultural interests would have to go back to the table to work out a new deal.
In Fall 2011 the Department of the Interior announced that they would support the removal of the four dams. As of November 2011, bills had been introduced in both houses of Congress to fund dam removal in the Klamath, but with strong Republican opposition to dam removal the bills may be facing an uphill battle. Some fish advocates in the Klamath don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing. While they support the removal of the four dams, they believe that dam removal is inevitable given the long term costs and liability of maintaining them and a renegotiation process may bring improvements in instream flow guarantees for salmon in the Klamath. Regardless of the outcome the next year is an important one for the future of the Klamath and its once great salmon runs.