Jimmy Peterson, a fisheries project coordinator for the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council, places rocks and stones to make fish passages in Fort Goff Creek, 60 miles up from the river’s mouth on California's North Coast.
“This creek has extremely awesome habitat up top here,” Peterson says. “Extremely awesome.”
Then he translates: “The water stays really cold and there’s plenty of nice spawning gravel that go up fairly far into the watershed. There’s not a lot of human activity up there either, so it’s fairly untouched.”
Scientists estimate that a century ago, hundreds of thousands of coho may have run up the Klamath’s streams and tributaries. Now it’s a few thousand. Federal and private grants fund the council’s work, helping coho access "extremely awesome" habitat because coho are threatened with extinction.
Dams aren’t the only reason salmon, trout and other fish need help on the Klamath. But they are a big one. The promise of dam removal is free passage for fish up to cooler spots and native headwaters. And the Klamath River, near California’s northern border, may become the next big western river to see that happen. Federal energy regulators are considering a plan that would open hundreds of miles of the Klamath to the potential of the largest river restoration in U.S. history.
Three of the dams are on the California side of the river. The lowest of these is Iron Gate Dam, near Hornbrook, in Siskiyou County, which has trapped silty sand, clay and rocks behind its walls. Reservoirs behind multiple dams slow water down and heat it up into a toxic algae breeding ground.
Winding Path to Dam Removal
Six years ago, these dams almost went away as part of a locally driven deal among fishery advocates, tribal and farming interests from two states, above the dams and below. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger touted the plan’s goals: removing dams, sharing water, and, yes, helping fish.
“I can see already, the salmon fishes screaming, 'I’ll be back,'” he said to a roomful of laughter.
But Congress sat on the deal for five years, and it fizzled in Washington. Now, dam removal is moving forward again, without Congress this time, thanks to an agreement signed in April at the mouth of the Klamath. At the ceremony, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell remembered visiting another big dam: the Elwha, in Washington state.
“You could see the fish pounding their faces against that dam,” she said.
Comparing the Klamath to that river, Jewell sees a lot of potential for fish restoration.
“To see in that dam removal project how fast the salmon have returned, way up into the tributaries, faster than the scientists thought they ever would,” she said. “And to see how fast the shoreline has been healed, which will happen right here at the mouth of the Klamath River, is a true inspiration.”
After the Dynamite
Demolition crews blasted through the last dam on the Elwha River two years ago. That river is still healing. And the Klamath is somewhat bigger: Its dams hold more silt and gravel behind them than the Elwha dams did.
Muddy, turbid waters aren’t good for salmon and steelhead. So to minimize harm, the plan for the Klamath is to drain the existing reservoirs in winter, sending water and silt downriver and toward the sea. Crews would destroy all of the dams in the same year. A stubborn plug of dirt would stay behind; proponents of removal expect time and rain to gradually spread it downriver.
California Trout’s Curtis Knight says those first turbulent and dirty years are often hard on salmon.
“But what you see quite quickly is a rebound and an ability of that river, now that it’s running free, to move that sediment,” he says. Without sediment feeding it, the riverbed downstream has dropped in elevation. Knight says as the river channels fill in, fish will have an easier time getting upstream to spawning areas.
Still, there’s some uncertainty how fast after dam removal the river and its fish might recover. The complexity of the river system makes some elements of a comprehensive recovery plan uncertain.
“What are we going to restore it back to?” asks NOAA Fisheries specialist Bob Pagliuco. “I don’t think we’re ever going to restore it back to pre-European times. Or if we want to bring it back to where it was 10,000 years ago, I don’t think we’re going to be able to do that. So I think we’re going to essentially enhance things.”
Even without dams, water quality problems remain. Some of the issues are natural, some are from farming and grazing, land uses that have replaced wetland marshes upriver, around the Klamath’s headwaters.
Oregon alfalfa grower Gary Derry is like many farmers: a fisherman, too. He’s mostly worried about his bottom line. So he wants to know restoration plans will work.
“If we're going to do something, if something's going to happen, if the fish need more water, let's make sure that water benefits the fish. Let's not just say, ‘Well, we thought it was going to help, but it didn't.’”
Glimpses of the Future
Upriver and down, efforts are underway to rehabilitate land around the Klamath’s waters.
Broadly, the goal is to do what Jimmy Peterson does in places like Fort Goff Creek. According to NOAA's Pagliuco, one federal study has found that fish grow up to six times faster in those habitat types than in adjacent, unimproved habitats.
"We don't really know that restoration as a whole is going to work on the Klamath, but we do have snapshots that these fish are growing bigger, that they're utilizing these projects," he says.
And in Oregon, Trout Unlimited’s Chrysten Lambert says restoration projects are already working.
“We definitely see responses in the native fish populations when we remove passage barriers, when we decrease temperature and when we restore complexity of habitat to provide them with important areas we need for spawning and rearing,” she says. “We do see responses in the native fish populations oftentimes immediately from that.”
Lambert also works with private landowners to modify land use to minimize nutrient runoff. With help from her organization, some ranchers have put up fencing to keep cattle from wandering into and damaging streams. Keeping cattle out also helps the recovery of streamside vegetation that helps filter pollutants.
Where farmers and cattlemen have been around four or five generations, even small changes like these can prompt major discussion.
“I think what’s challenging is, you’re talking about people changing how much land they have to graze and when they graze it," Lambert said. "Which goes straight to the bottom line of their operations.”
Oregon rancher Becky Hyde says she has idled land, or put it into dry-land crop rather than irrigating it. "That changes how much money we can make, which we have to think through," she says.
But Hyde also sees a value. "We still graze our river, but we changed the timing of when we graze, so that it's more beneficial for the grasses and the healing of the river."
Salmon Since Time Immemorial
Along California’s North Coast, the stakes for salmon recovery are a matter of identity. Native tribal culture revolves around fish, and the Yurok tribe has federally protected rights to salmon.
But it hasn’t always been that way, says the tribe’s vice chief, David Gensaw Jr. He remembers in 1978 when the state banned tribal and sport fishing in the Klamath River estuary. Federal agents with billy clubs grabbed Yurok tribal members and the salmon they had caught with gillnets. The federal government eventually returned rights to the tribe.
But Gensaw’s sense of stewardship has been constant. And this year, the outlook for the salmon fishery was bleak. Fishery managers allotted the Yurok less than one salmon a person.
“Our ancestors told us, when the fish are gone, so are the Yurok people,” he says. “And we don’t plan to go anywhere.”
The Yurok aren’t alone: Other interests have water rights here, too. Taking the dams out doesn’t settle who gets the water they want. Now, once again, people in the Klamath Basin are negotiating over a way to share.