The Fate of the Klamath Basin is the Fate of Rural America

The Klamath River is the biggest river in America that nobody’s ever heard of. Easily the largest river between the mighty Columbia on the Oregon–Washington border and the Sacramento–San Joaquin River, which drains California’s Central Valley, the Klamath watershed covers a whopping 12,000 square miles.

From its headwaters in southern Oregon, the Klamath runs south through high desert before bending west to traverse deep canyons in California’s coast ranges, eventually finding the ocean just south of Eureka. Historically, millions of salmon ran up the Klamath each year to spawn in the cool gravel beds of its upstream tributaries. Today these salmon populations are reduced to a small fraction of their historical numbers, and attempts to revive salmon populations on the Klamath have triggered a war for the watershed’s future.

On one side are environmentalists and state bureaucrats, who have brought to the battle unlimited funds for lawfare and punitive regulations. On the other side are farmers and ranchers who have operated for over a century in the region, attempting to survive on thin profit margins in an era of increased costs and the relentless regulatory assault on their ability to subsist.

To begin to understand the war for the future of the Klamath, one must recognize the differences between the upper and lower watersheds. They are distinct ecosystems with differing topography, geology, climate, water quality, and species. Historically, much of the water running down from headwaters in Oregon into the upper Klamath River never made it into the lower river and hence to the ocean. Instead, year after year during floods, runoff overflows the riverbanks and pours south into the Tule Basin, a vast wetland that straddles the border between southern Oregon and northeast California.

This all changed with the Klamath Project, a series of dams, canals, and levees constructed just over 100 years ago to reclaim rangeland and wetland for farming. In all, the project created over 200,000 acres of farmland. The rich soil and mild, high-altitude climate yield some of the finest-quality barley, alfalfa, oats, wheat, potatoes, onions, and garlic in the world. The centerpiece of the Klamath Project is the Link River Dam, which regulates the volume and downstream flow of the Upper Klamath Lake. And herein the conflicts begin, with farmers prioritizing diversions into the upper basin to irrigate their crops and maintain wildlife refuges, while also recharging aquifers, and environmentalists demanding that more water be allowed to flow downstream in hopes of a healthier aquatic ecosystem for salmon.

The farmers, lacking the financial resources of powerful environmentalist NGOs and state bureaucracies, have not been able to fund the army of consultants, academic experts, and litigators that would be necessary to effectively resist the state and federal edicts that redirect upper Klamath runoff downstream. But they nonetheless make a compelling case for themselves. It begins with the volume and quality of water they’re fighting over.

The topography of the upper Klamath was defined over the past half-million years, as volcanic eruptions generated lava flows that intersected the river, depositing phosphate-rich ash that leeches contaminants into the river to this day. This water has historically stayed mostly in the upper basin, where it is adequate for farm irrigation and the native fish species that are adapted to it. By channelizing the upper Klamath and sending most of the water downstream, the phosphate-rich water nourishes algae blooms that deplete the oxygen and harbor parasites, both of which are harmful to salmon.

Which brings us to the plans to remove four mid-river dams. Situated along a stretch of rapid drops in elevation, crisscrossed by lava flows, the J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and Iron Gate Dams are positioned where the Klamath transitions from its upper to its lower watershed. After the Iron Gate Dam, the river runs unobstructed 193 miles to the Pacific Ocean.

If the dispute over water allocations in the upper Klamath is a slow and one-sided war of attrition, demolishing these dams — resulting in a radically transformed, free-flowing river — is the culmination of a bitter fight that has raged for over 20 years, and even now the outcome is not certain.

In November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted a license to Klamath River Restoration Corporation (KRRC) to demolish the dams. Their original operator, PacifiCorp, had been looking for a way to get rid of them ever since being ordered by FERC in 2007 to install fish ladders on the “fish-killing” dams. Facing a cost to install fish ladders that would exceed the cost of removing the dams, PacifiCorp managed to avoid both by ceding control of the dams to KRRC, in a deal that shifted the estimated $450 million cost of dam removal to the taxpayers of California and Oregon.

Will Removing Four Dams Do More Harm Than Good?

Removing the four dams has some obvious attendant harms. Over 70,000 households purchasing cheap hydroelectric power from these dams will face much higher utility rates, as their power will now have to be imported from wind farms and coal-fueled power plants in Wyoming. The water stored behind these dams was used to maintain stable summer flows in the lower Klamath, and once they’re gone, environmentalists will call for more restrictions on water allocations for farmers upstream in order to reserve water in the Upper Klamath Reservoir for summer releases into the lower river.

But is using upstream water to maintain summer flows in the lower Klamath helpful? Environmentalists claim more water in the river is necessary to disrupt the parasites that live on the riverbanks and attack salmon. But farmers claim that less flow in the summer dries out the riverbanks and kills the parasites.

Anthony Intiso, a local businessman who filed a lawsuit in December 2022 to halt demolition of the dams, believes that removal will cause not only economic harm but environmental havoc. One of the primary arguments in Intiso’s case is that the State of California, by making use of Proposition 1 (2014) funds to help pay the demolition costs, is violating the terms of that measure, specifically that “no monies and no actions shall be used to adversely affect the values of a wild and scenic river.”

Intiso told me that in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the dam removal — an 823-page monstrosity — “adverse effects are listed over 280 times.” There clearly are serious environmental impacts to removing dams this big. Congressman Doug LaMalfa, whose district encompasses the dams, said in a press release that, “at a minimum, there is 20 million cubic yards of sediment behind the four Klamath hydroelectric dams, some of it toxic. To put this in perspective, that is one dump truck load, every minute of every day for six years without stopping. If the federal government is wrong, as they were by 3 fold with the Condit Dam removal project, there could be triple on Klamath, more like 60 million cubic yards.”

The problem with this amount of fine sediment is not only that much of it may be contaminated with accumulated and naturally occurring phosphorus and nitrogen from the upper Klamath, but that as the dams come down and it is released into the river it will smother the gravel beds where salmon typically lay their eggs. It will take years if not decades to completely disperse this sediment, and meanwhile it will be incredibly destructive to all aquatic species in the river.

There are serious questions that have never been answered to the satisfaction of farmers, ranchers, other long-time residents, and wildlife biologists concerned about the entire Klamath watershed’s ecosystems. An anadromous species, salmon live in the ocean but must return to freshwater rivers to deposit their eggs in gravel streambeds. There isn’t strong evidence that salmon ever spawned further upstream than the Iron Gate Dam, because it is already nearly 200 miles upstream from the ocean, and because it is at the beginning of a series of sharp increases in elevation that salmon would most likely avoid. In fact, in what is clearly a denial of geologic history, part of the remediation project requires blasting a so-called voluntary passageway through natural volcanic barriers upstream from Iron Gate and created by prehistoric lava flows, just to enable salmon to swim further upstream.

Additional evidence that salmon have not spawned in the upper Klamath watershed is found in the presence of the redband trout, a species considered “outside the range of anadromy” (meaning it lives too far from the ocean to migrate downstream and back). This species may have evolved in the upper Klamath watershed after lava flows changed the hydrology of the river and made downstream migration impossible.

Another unanswered question is how the river may have functioned historically before the blocking levees were constructed early in the past century to prevent winter flood runoff from watering the Tule Basin. How much water from the upper Klamath was ever supposed to naturally reach the lower Klamath? And with so much emphasis on more water for the salmon downstream, how will the Tule Basin wetlands and aquifers avoid destruction, along with the farming economy?

Alternatives to Dam Removal on the Klamath River

From a topographic point of view, the dams on the Klamath River are just extensions of volcanic barriers and elevation shifts that already prevented salmon migration. The fact that “voluntary passageways” must be blasted through lava barriers on the river after the dams are removed ought to be a giveaway. The likely scenarios if the project proceeds — downstream, millions of tons of toxic sediment, and upstream, the destruction of farming but also wildlife refuges as more water is directed into the lower river to try to wash out that sediment — are hardly better environmental outcomes.

Instead of removing these dams, imagine what might be done with nearly $500 million (aside from simply saving it). There are more cost-effective mitigation projects that might help the salmon.

For example, on the aptly named Salmon River, a major tributary of the lower Klamath, banks could be regraded to restore the narrow channel that was lost in the devastating flooding of 1964. Some of the salmon decline can be traced to that event, which altered the tributary’s hydrology, making it wider and slower and hence warmer and less hospitable to salmon migrating to their spawning grounds.

Another approach would be to periodically restrict fishing and disperse the populations of seals and otters that prey on migrating salmon at the river’s mouth.

In general, focusing on the lower tributaries, which have always been the primary sites of salmon spawning, would be a far more productive use of resources. If the naturally occurring, nutrient-rich flow coming downstream from the upper Klamath is damaging the aquatic ecosystems, the solution isn’t to flush the river with even more flow from the upper Klamath. The solution is to limit the flow from the upper Klamath, using that water instead to recharge the aquifers, restore the wetlands, and in so doing preserve the farming economy in the Tule Basin. After all, historically, water was never reserved from the upper Klamath to send downstream to the lower Klamath. In fact when the upper Klamath reached even moderate flood stage, all the excess water flowed into the Tule Basin. That’s where it used to go, and that’s where it should stay.

Why Are Special Interests Determined to Demolish Dams on the Klamath?

This is perhaps the most difficult question of all. No reasonable observer would deny that sometimes it is appropriate to remove an old dam. But even if removing these dams on the Klamath does yield environmental benefits, it will take several decades and cost a staggering amount of money. So what’s really going on?

Richard Marshall, president of the Siskiyou County Water Users Association, expressed a sentiment I heard often when researching the matter. “The long-range liberal concept is people should be living in cities, where it is easier to service people,” he said. The goal is to “depopulate rural areas. We have a rural lifestyle, and there are people running our government today who think rural communities are outliers and everyone should be in cities where you can have central sewer and central water systems.”

When I spoke with him, Congressman LaMalfa echoed Marshall’s comments, lamenting the impact that extreme environmentalism is having on his district. “Farming, ranching, and hydroelectric are all industries being killed in Siskiyou, and environmental groups fundraise off this,” he said. “The leaders draw six-, seven-digit salaries to run these groups. People send $25 to some organization, then they have the stickers with the pandas on their cars, and they feel good.”

But they don’t always get it right, these environmentalist stewards. The misguided focus on saving salmon while disregarding other species within the Klamath watershed and inviting a cataclysmic disruption to the river that will likely wipe salmon out for years to come, the failure to recognize that in history the excess water in the upper Klamath never made it downstream but instead flooded the Tule Basin or that salmon never spawned in the upper watershed, the indifference to more effective solutions to help the salmon on the lower-basin tributaries, the disregard for the fact that responsibly managed cattle actually help ecosystem health: All this and more bespeaks a madness, a thoughtless momentum, a movement that has lost its balance and its integrity.

What’s happening in the Klamath Basin is far from unique. The fact that it is happening in a place where not only are the economic costs devastating, but the environmental benefits are dubious at best, should concern not just rural America but all of us.

This article originally appeared in the National Review.

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