Iron Gate, the lowest of the three remaining dams, was first breached on Jan. 9, followed by J.C. Boyle on Jan. 16. On Jan. 23, a concrete plug in the tunnel at the base of Copco 1 was blasted away. The reservoirs drained swiftly, leaving behind vast expanses of fissured mud the color and consistency of chocolate cake batter. The Klamath River is winding through the naked landscape, finding its new shape.

The transformation has left some residents reeling.

April Sears, a resident of the Copco Lake community in California, says the last week has been “horrible.”

“First of all, we lost the lake,” she said. “It kind of hits you hard, like you lost your best friend or somebody.” A few days ago, she lost water in the home she rents on Patricia Avenue. Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the entity overseeing dam removal, is putting Sears up in a hotel in Ashland, Oregon, while they resolve the situation. Nearby, KRRC has already installed an above-ground tank to furnish 11 homes with potable water after their shared well failed.

For some residents, the worst part of drawdown has been witnessing its effects on the wildlife they have come to know and love. Many have seen dead fish stranded in the mud, and on Jan. 27, residents spotted a doe and yearling that had become hopelessly stuck trying to reach water. Volunteer firefighters from the Hornbrook Fire Protection District tried to rescue the mired animals but abandoned the mission as dusk fell. Soon after, an officer from California Department of Fish and Wildlife euthanized the deer.

“The mud was so thick; it was so far out there; they tried so hard,” said Chrissie Reynolds, a long-time resident of Copco Lake who drove to the scene to try to help. “But all that time, those animals were suffering.”

Two days later, residents spotted another group of eight deer that had become trapped in the mud, but they had already died.

Peter Tira, information officer at CDFW, said his agency will be installing temporary fencing in areas where deer are likely to attempt crossing the drained reservoirs, along with reflective devices to steer them away from hazardous areas.

“We are going to deploy additional staff to the area to keep a watch on things,” he added.

Tira said that CDFW had emergency response plans for wildlife in place, but these plans focus more on specific species, including western pond turtles, listed as “species of special concern” in California, and golden and bald eagles.

“The deer issue was unanticipated,” said Tira. “But we also have to remember that this is unprecedented. This is the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in American history, so a lot of the circumstances we’re learning about are unforeseen.”

CDFW will rescue animals where it’s safe to do so; in addition, Hornbrook Fire District has acquired some specialized equipment for mud, water and ice rescues and will be training personnel with it soon.

Anyone who sees a stranded animal should call CDFW and should not attempt to rescue wildlife on their own, said Ren Brownell, spokesperson for Klamath River Renewal Corporation. “It’s critical at this time that people stay out of the reservoir because it is dangerous for them as well.”

Water quality worsened below Iron Gate

The influx of fine sediment and dead algae now flowing down the Klamath impaired water quality below Iron Gate, the farthest downriver dam. Oxygen levels became depleted but soon improved, according to a post on KRRC’s Facebook page. “Within 24 hours the concentration of dissolved oxygen began to recover,” it reads.

“This is a temporary impact that’s the result of what will be a very beneficial river recovery process,” said Dave Coffman, geoscientist for Resource Environmental Solutions or RES, which is leading the restoration of the reservoir footprints. “Rivers are made to transport sediment; all we did was remove the impediments to sediment transport.”