May 2, 2024

Undamming the Klamath

Tribal nations are restoring the river while reclaiming and revitalizing their cultural heritage.


Underscore News + ICT

This story, along with the photos and video, are part of a partnership between Underscore News, ICT and High Country News.

The Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon have not seen salmon, much less been able to fish for them, for over a century now, ever since seven dams in the Klamath Basin were erected as part of PacifiCorp’s Klamath Hydroelectric Project. The dams, which were built between 1911 and 1962, reshaped the way the river flows, preventing fish passage and denying the Native nations access to an essential resource.

Now, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation project is overseeing the decommissioning of the four lower dams on the river. Copco No. 2 was fully removed in October 2023, and the process for draining the reservoirs above the other three dams — Copco No. 1, John C. Boyle and Iron Gate — was completed in February, with those remaining three dams scheduled for full removal in 2024.

“The tribes are very excited to see the salmon return after over 110 years of absence,” said Don Gentry, natural resource specialist and former chairman of the Klamath Tribes. Gentry dreams that one day, his grandson will be able to catch salmon and steelhead on the tribe’s own land once again.

Before the dams went up, salmon, steelhead and Pacific lamprey could easily navigate the entire length of the Klamath River, which flows over 260 miles from its headwaters in the Cascade Mountains of eastern Oregon to the Pacific Ocean in Northern California.

“There were thousands and thousands of pounds of fish — first foods — that our ancestors had every year that were lost almost overnight,” said Klamath Tribal Chairman Clayton Dumont.

The dam removal is part of the tribes’ vision for a wholesale revitalization of the river, including the wildlife and the people that depend on it. Today, Native nations, working with community partnership and federal dollars, are leading that work.

The Klamath Tribes are currently restoring a marsh 30 miles northeast of Upper Klamath Lake, the headwaters of the river. Dumont said that this marsh was historically the site of the Klamath Tribes’ largest village. Today, it remains a vital source of water for the Klamath Basin. Given its ecological and cultural importance, the tribe hopes to restore the connectivity in order to improve the ecosystem’s overall health and bring more water to everyone along the river, Dumont said.

“Ecological revitalization is synonymous with cultural revitalization for us,” he explained.

This work is supported by a historic agreement between the Klamath, Yurok and Karuk tribes and the agricultural Klamath Water Users Association, together with $72 million in federal funds meant to help tribes restore the Klamath Basin ecosystem.

The Klamath Tribes are currently partnering with the non-tribal Klamath Drainage District, which is made up primarily of ranchers and farmers. Together, they will use some of the funding to reconnect another marsh farther south to Lower Klamath Lake and thus to the Klamath River itself, according to Dumont. The marsh has historically served as an important part of the floodplain.

Dumont hopes the project can help the Klamath heal from its man-made wounds, restoring the flow of the water that the river and the people and wildlife along it rely on.

Sources: Klamath River Renewal Project;; Google Maps

‘The Tribe the dams were built on’

Three of the four lower dams created reservoirs that submerged whole regions that were once dry land: Copco Lake, Iron Gate Reservoir and John C. Boyle Reservoir.

One area in particular is especially important to the Shasta Indian Nation — K’íka·c’é·ki, which was once home to the Shasta people. The Shasta Indian Nation has been called “the tribe the dams were built on,” said Sami Jo Difuntorum, the cultural preservation officer of the Shasta Indian Nation and a Shasta citizen.

Today, the earth is cracked and dry at K’íka·c’é·ki; it resembles cooling lava as the water slowly drains from Copco Lake. At the moment, this piece of land may not look like much, but it holds immeasurable value for many Shasta citizens.

“This area represents a lot to us,” Difuntorum explained in a presentation to journalists. “We have a lot of things that were submerged as a result of the dams and the land being taken.”

Sami Jo Difuntorum, cultural preservation officer of the Shasta Indian Nation and a Shasta citizen, speaks to a group of journalists in September 2023 during a tour of Shasta Indian Nation traditional homelands. (Photo by Nika Bartoo-Smith, Underscore News/ICT)

Over a century after the river was straightened by the dams and dredged for mines, the Klamath is beginning to find its way back to its original curves, and K’íka·c’é·ki is re-emerging at last.

And now, there are talks about returning this land to the Shasta Indian Nation.

According to the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, once the dams are fully removed, ownership of the PacifiCorp lands associated with the Klamath Hydroelectric Project will be transferred either to the states of Oregon and California or to an as-yet-unannounced third party.

Difuntorum cited California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s directive to return “excess land” to California tribes as a reason to hope that the Shasta Indian Nation will find itself in the running for the return of K’íka·c’é·ki.

“It would mean that people could return to our homeland … our spiritual areas we haven't had access to for 100 years,” she said. “We want ceremony back; we want our land back.”

An aerial image shows the changing landscape of Copco Reservoir and the newly formed main channel of the Klamath River on Feb. 5, 2024 near Hornbook, Calif. Copco Reservoir filled the valley since the construction of Copco Number 1 Dam in 1922, which was drawn down in January, revealing a landscape that was submerged for over 100 years. (Alex Milan Tracy/Underscore News)

‘Saving the salmon is saving Karuk people’

For the Karuk Tribe along the middle part of the Klamath River, fishing has always been a vital part, not just of sustenance but of the life of the tribe itself. But settler colonialism and the creation of the dams drastically changed that for all of the Native nations that live along the river.

The Karuk Tribe has been working on projects to prepare the Klamath River and its tributaries for the return of salmon and other fish once the dams come down. Tribal members plan to restore the region’s habitat and carefully monitor the return of the fish.

“Now that the reservoirs are draining, we're starting to see the river coming back,” said Toz Soto, fisheries program manager at the Karuk Tribe. “It's really cool to see the river finding its old channel and flowing freely again.”

Working in an off-channel salmon-rearing pond on Horse Creek, Harold “Sonny” Mitchell Jr. is able to estimate the current population of juvenile coho salmon. Fisheries technicians keep track of the fish by either clipping their fins or giving them a tag that acts like a barcode.

“The importance of getting this done is the continued culture of our people — to be able to fish, have fish to eat, to be able to bring our elders and go to the falls and fish traditionally there,” Mitchell, a Karuk Tribe descendent, said. “Saving the salmon is saving Karuk people.”

Sonny Mitchell, a Karuk descendant and field supervisor, sorts through juvenile coho salmon (bottom right). Goodman Pond in Horse Creek is one of 35 off-channel refuges created to help re-establish fish numbers in the river. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

As of 2004, Karuk citizens had an estimated diabetes rate of 21%, nearly four times the national average, according to a report prepared for the tribe. Karuk citizens also suffer heart disease at three times the national average. Kari Marie Norgaard, the sociologist who prepared the report, draws a direct link between these health disparities and settler colonialism, including the creation of the Klamath Dams. Many families reported first seeing the appearance of diabetes in the 1970s, after all the dams were in place.

“Before the impacts of dams, mining and overfishing the Karuk people subsisted off salmon year-round for tens of thousands of years,” Norgaard’s report says. “Now poverty and hunger rates for the Karuk Tribe are amongst the highest in the State and Nation.”

Spring chinook salmon numbers have only continued to decrease over the years. Once the dams are removed, the tribes hope to see the salmon return, though their numbers are unlikely to ever be what they once were.

Not far down the river from the Karuk, the Hoopa Valley Tribe announced that it had purchased 10,395 acres of Hoopa ancestral lands, including the headwaters of Pine Creek, a tributary of the Klamath. The tribe plans to restore historic spawning grounds for the returning salmon.

Karuk tribal member Ben Harrison holds one end of a seine net from shore as Aaron Tuttle, Hoopa, holds the middle and Eric Fieberg walks around the end to close the loop at Goodman Pond in Horse Creek, California, during coho monitoring there. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

The Estuary

The Klamath River pours into the Pacific from the Yurok Indian Reservation. The river is a special place for Yurok citizen Barry McCovey Jr., who grew up with it and could see it from his house. To go anywhere — whether to school or the grocery store — his family drove along a highway that twisted and turned alongside the river, like partners in an intricate dance.

In the summertime, McCovey splashed in the waters to cool off. In spring and fall, he went fishing.

“It was this ever-present source of my life growing up, and (it) really imprinted on me,” he said.

Today, McCovey directs the Yurok Tribal Fisheries. He has long been a persistent advocate for dam removal and river restoration.

“I'm most excited for our relations up the river. … They haven't had anadromous fish up there in a long, long time — over 100 years,” McCovey said. “And that's the definition of cultural revitalization — bringing back something so important to river people.”

Mono tribal member Anthony Carlson removes a black oak from its pot to plant along the bank of the newly formed main channel of the Klamath River. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

In preparation for the dams to come out, crews contracted by the ecological restoration company Resource Environmental Solutions (RES), made up largely of Yurok and Karuk citizens, have been working to restore the banks of the Klamath.

Richard Green, a Yurok citizen and a revegetation technician, grew up fishing along the Klamath. It’s where many of his core memories were created.

Green’s grandmother, Bonnie Green, served on the tribal council for much of his life. He remembers her traveling to Sacramento, California, and Washington, D.C., advocating for dam removal and the health of the Klamath River. He’s heard stories about when she was young, how she attended Indigenous rights protests, holding signs demanding dam removal before she could even walk. She instilled in him the need to protect and restore the Klamath.

“She passed away before we even got to this point,” Green said. “I learned a lot about the importance of service from her, and the value of just working for your people.”

That appears in the work Green does today, working for RES to revegetate 2,200 acres of previously submerged ground after the three reservoirs have been drawn down.

Since 2019, the crew has been working to gather and propagate seeds from nearly 100 native species. RES hopes to plant billions of seeds.

And after the dams are removed, the reseeding and revegetation efforts will continue for years to come. Green points to the Elwha dam removals, which began over 10 years ago. Revegetation crews are still working along the river.

Seeds in a footprint imprinted on the southern shore of the former reservoir during the previous week of sowing by tribal crews. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

Unlike their relatives above the dams, who have not seen salmon in their waters in over a century, Yurok citizens have been able to catch salmon here on their homeland. Salmon is perhaps their most critical source of protein.

“As a kid, it was pretty common to be at the mouth of the river during a fall run, and it was like a little Indian city,” said Green, recalling the fishing season. But those numbers have since dwindled.      

“It’s never been what it was,” Green said.    

Many remember the 2002 fish kills, when Yurok Tribal Fisheries counted over 34,000 dead fish in the Lower Klamath River.

Yet salmon populations started declining long before that. Before the dams, there was the 19th century gold rush and the widespread, unregulated mining that followed. The Klamath River and its tributaries have been violently reshaped and mistreated for well over a century. The scars left behind will not be so easily erased.

“We like to say dam removal is the largest single step we can take towards restoring the Klamath Basin,” McCovey said. “But it is just one single step on a long journey.”

Lead photo: The view over Iron Gate Dam outside Hornbook, Calif., in February. Water levels continue to fall in the reservoir since draw down began in January. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / Underscore News)

About the author

Nika Bartoo-Smith

Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to provide platforms for the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Born and raised in Portland, Nika is a descendant of the Osage and Oneida Nations, with Northern European and Indonesian heritage. A joint reporter with Underscore News + ICT since March 2023, she previously worked as the health and social services reporter at The Columbian in Vancouver, Washington. Her favorite way to unwind is by trying a new recipe, browsing the aisles of a local bookstore or creating beaded jewelry.

Twitter: @BartooNika


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