For centuries, the Klamath River has teemed with salmon, irrigated area farmland, and created a haven for those who live along its banks. Tribes, farmers, homeowners, and conservationists all have an interest in the river’s water. Now a demolition project could bring much change.
The U.S. government plans to demolish four hydroelectric dams along the Klamath River. As dams age, they become expensive to maintain. But even in prime condition, dams have pluses and minuses.
Waterfront residents want the dams to stay. Some worry the path of the river will change if the dams go. Their properties could become mudflats. Then homes will lose value. Many homeowners built houses decades ago—with no idea the dams would ever come down.
Tom Rickard’s house wouldn’t sell. “The real estate people are not anxious to take listings here because it’s the rumors there [about the dams] all the time,” Rickard says.
The four dams set for destruction were built for power generation only. They’re not used for irrigation or flood control.
Two other dams on the Klamath won’t be demolished. They’re part of a massive irrigation system on the Oregon-California border—one that provides water to more than 300 square miles of crops. Farmers near these won’t be directly affected by the four dams’ removal. Still, they worry the demolition trend could someday endanger the dams they rely on.
For the region’s Native American tribes, the push to remove the dams isn’t about money or crops. “I actually credit a lot of our men and women’s depression to the fact that they fish for days and days and days and days and don’t catch anything,” says Georgiana Gensaw. She lives on the Yurok reservation, which runs 44 miles along the river. “We want to bring salmon home.”
The various salmon populations from the Klamath River have decreased drastically. A recent salmon run was so meager that the Yurok canceled fishing for the first time in the tribe’s memory. In 2017, they had to buy fish for their annual salmon festival.
Removing the dam and emptying the reservoirs could reopen fish habitat that’s been blocked for more than a century. That might revive salmon populations.
Yet even demolition advocates say dam removal won’t be enough on its own. Farming growth, including draining area wetlands and intense use of chemicals, has harmed the river, the land, and the fish. But it could be a start toward restoring a small piece of God’s creation.
Amy Cordalis is a Yurok tribal attorney fighting for dam removal. She says, “We are saving salmon country.”