Photo by Daniel Sarna-Wojcicki.

Q: What if the river dries up or the flow is too low?

Dam removal will not dramatically affect flow levels, but will increase flow variability. This is healthy for a river system. Growing water demands and climate change are reducing the amount of water available throughout the Klamath Basin, but because of endangered Coho salmon the federal government is required to maintain minimum flow levels in the mid- and lower-Klamath River. Water allotted to irrigators is the primary cause of low flows, but endangered species take priority.

Q: What will we do without scheduled releases from the dams?

Occasionally, dam operators release extra water from the dams in order to reduce fish disease and clear out the river channel. These functions are important for river health, but will still happen without dams. Winter storm flows, or freshets, are high enough to do the job. These high flows are currently prevented by dams from moving downstream, but after removal the river will be able to naturally maintain itself. Furthermore, the Keno and Link dams will still be in place and can exercise some control of the river.

Q: How will dam removal improve water quality?

Removing the dams would remove many of the conditions that allow for fish disease and poor water quality. Dams hold back water in their reservoirs, allowing the river water to heat up. High temperatures spur the growth of toxin-producing blue-green algae up to concentrations 4,000 times greater than what would pose a moderate health risk. Furthermore, the dams slow down water via reservoirs, allowing fish diseases to thrive, and algae blooms deplete the river of oxygen needed to sustain life. Restoring the natural, free-flowing river will improve these problems. (See SWRCB EIR, ODEQ Final 401 Water Quality Certification)

Q: Won’t the sediments in the reservoirs harm the river system?

ODEQ and the California SWRCB found that there are no significant contaminants/toxins in reservoir sediments above and beyond natural background levels. Both agencies have concluded that most of the impounded sediments released will be naturally washed through the river to the ocean within 2 years following reservoir drawdown and dam removal. The sediment composition is mostly dead algae and fine clay. Dam removal is expected to increase the natural sediment load by less than 50% in the first year, and by small amounts if any, afterwards.The SWRCB has outlined mitigation measures to monitor elevated sediment levels, particularly in the first year, to ensure wildlife and humans alike are not harmed.

The KRRC plans to minimize impacts to Coho salmon and other fish by timing reservoir drawdown to avoid major fish runs in spring and fall (taking action while fish are safe at sea or in tributaries), complying with relevant regulations. So, while property owners along the river will see short-term river impacts that will affect recreation opportunities, the long-term results of dam removal are expected to be very positive for recreation and fishing. 

Q: What about all the homes that get their electricity from the dams?

The four Lower Klamath dams generate only about 2% of the electricity PacificCorp provides. Furthermore, the State Water and Resources Control Board found in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that dam removal is “not expected to significantly increase carbon emissions” given PacificCorps’ plans to include more renewable energy development and energy efficiency programs in their portfolio. 

Moreover, the California and Oregon Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) have determined that successful implementation of the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA), is in the best interest of ratepayers. The KHSA caps the cost of dam removal to ratepayers at $200 million (compared to an uncapped, $400+ million in a no-removal scenario), lessening the impact on local residents. 

Q: What will happen to the animals/plants in the reservoir ecosystem?

According to Yurok and Karuk researchers, there’s little evidence to suggest that animals established in the reservoir systems will be negatively affected by dam removal. Any effect will be temporary, as the positive benefits of fewer toxic cyanobacteria, lower temperatures, and return of the salmon upstream will bring positive benefits to the entire ecosystem. Furthermore, the natural flow of the river is expected to wash out debris, and winter freshets in particular will clear out dead standing willows.

Though little is known about this matter, careful monitoring of the dam removals on the Klamath can assist in accurately answering this question for future reference. Alongside monitoring efforts, the reservoir banks previously covered by water will be sites for native seed propagation, pioneer seeding, and permanent seed broadcasting in order to restore the barren banks back to a riverine ecosystem (KDRSCW, 21).

Q. What will happen to flood control?

These dams were designed and operated to be “run of river” to generate electricity, not to prevent floods. Recent modeling suggests that flood elevations may see an increase of 6 to 18 inches in a 100-year floor event in the first 18 miles below the site of Iron Gate Dam. Only a few dozens homes below that dam will be affected, and the KRRC has proposed financial compensation to property owners to mitigate these impacts. Happy Camp is far outside the impacted 18-mile section of the river, and is expected to see no significant impact due to flooding. 

While the dam reservoirs do seem to hold significant amounts of water, much of the water that comes into the Klamath River comes from the rain and other rivers (like the Scott, Shasta, and Trinity). If these hydroelectric dams were operated for flood control purposes, they would not be able to successfully hold back enough water to prevent flooding.

Q: How long will it take dam removal to yield good results?

Dam removal is not a “silver bullet,” and will cause some stress to the river. It may take multiple seasons for the effects of reservoir sediment to subside before the salmon runs benefit. The health of the Klamath is at a critical point, and dam removal will be the first step in restoring fish habitat and improving water quality. 

One place we can turn to for insight is the removal of dams on the Elwha river and subsequent restoration. Salmon began returning to their natal waters upstream of the dams just months after dam removal, surpassing expectations. In the first few years following dam removal in 2011, the river saw a natural return of wildlife, as well as an overall trend of stabilization in the river channel.

Thanks to John R. Oberholzer Dent (Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources Water Quality Program), Nathaniel Ramos (Stanford University), and Cole Dill-De Sa (Stanford University) for preparing this FAQ sheet.  

This work was conducted to support the following research project: Social Impact Assessment of Klamath Dam Removal – A Collaborative Research Initiative with the Karuk Tribe. For additional inquires, please write to damremoval.socialimpact@gmail.com.