Understanding Dam Removal

The Impacts of Dams

Dams Kill Fish

The nutrient-rich waters of the volcanic upper Klamath Basin flow into warm stagnant reservoirs. This is the perfect breeding ground for Microcystis aeruginosa and other toxic algae species. For months each year, the reservoirs and river below are posted with warnings against human contact due to the toxic pollution created by the dams. Fish disease parasites flourish in the low flows of warm water below the dams. In recent years as many as 90% of the juvenile salmon have been terminally infected by Ceratomyxa shasta while returning adults often succumb to gill rot before spawning.


Dams Block Spawning Habitat

The Klamath once saw a million salmon and steelhead return each year. In recent years runs have been less than 5% of that historic abundance.  Although many factors contribute to the decline, dams are the biggest. The dams block over 420 miles of historic spawning and rearing habitat for coho, Chinook, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey. Chinook salmon and steelhead once spawned above Upper Klamath Lake in the Williamson, Sprague, and Wood Rivers. This habitat is completely unavailable to fish today.

Dam removal is the only solution

Fish ladders won’t fix the problem. Iron Gate Dam is 173 feet tall. A fish ladder over the dam would be nearly two miles long and cost hundreds of millions to construct. It would be one of the tallest salmon ladders ever constructed. Even if a salmon managed the climb, it would then find itself in a reservoir with poor water quality and low dissolved oxygen. Economic analyses conclude that it would be cheaper to simply remove the dams (see below). Besides, this does nothing to address the severe water quality impairments caused by dams. The same is true for other fish passage ideas such as fish cannons and trap and haul programs.

Dams harm human health

Dams kill fish and degrade water quality which in turn impacts human health. Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa, and other Tribes in the Klamath Basin have subsisted on salmon and other Klamath fishes for time immemorial. A lack of fish has led to a radical change in diet for Tribal People, contributing to dramatic increases in diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. In short, the dams are literally killing the basin’s native people. Toxic algae blooms behind the dams each summer creating a serious health risk for everyone that recreates in the reservoirs or river downstream.

Dams harm Tribal cultures

Fish is an integral part of the cultural identity of the Klamath Basin Tribes. Catching fish, cooking fish, preserving fish for the winter, are all community activities practiced in the Klamath for millennia. Fish play a large part in Tribal ceremonies and spiritual practices. A loss of fish is a loss of culture.

The Path to Removal


Privately owned hydropower dams must have a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate. These licenses expire every 30-50 years; the Klamath Dams’ license expired in 2004. FERC also has to approve any plans to decommission privately owned hydropower dams. As chronicled in our story map, parties fought over the dams’ fate for over a decade before agreeing to the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, or KHSA.

The KHSA requires PacifiCorp to pay $200 million towards dam removal and California to pay $250. A complex insurance and liability management plan is in place to address any cost overruns. Thus, dam removal is fully funded without any federal dollars. The bottom line is that these dams don’t make enough electricity to justify the expense of relicensing, thus PacifiCorp’s willingness to enter into a removal agreement.

With funding issues resolved, the KHSA describes a two-step process to get FERC approval for removal. Step one is for PacifiCorp to transfer ownership of the dams to a newly created non-profit whose sole mission is to remove the structures – the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. FERC accepted the license transfer application in 2021, completing step one.

Part two of the FERC process is the approval of the detailed deconstruction plan. In order to approve this, federal law requires FERC to complete a detailed environmental review. The draft Environmental Impact Statement, due out by February 2022, will describe all the pros and cons of dam removal. After a public comment period, FERC will issue a final approval of dam removal and any necessary mitigation measures sometime in the summer of 2022 so that dam deconstruction can begin in January of 2023.

We need dam removal proponents to engage in the FERC process and comment in support of Klamath dam removal!