As demolition begins on one of the last Klamath River dams, attention turns to recovery

by Debra Utacia Krol at

Work began Wednesday on removing the third of four dams that nearly destroyed salmon populations on the Klamath River in Oregon and California and caused some of the nation’s largest-ever fish kills.

Karuk elder Leaf Hillman and his wife, Lisa, were on hand to see the first shovelful of dirt scraped from the top of the earthen dam. They and other tribal fish and water protectors had fought for years to demolish the dams that nearly made one of their cultural touchpoints and primary food sources extinct.

“We sweep all the bad things off the downriver edge of the world and off the upriver edge of the world,” said Hillman. “We make this place all new again in service of all the spirit people that exist on this earth, both human and non-human ancestors and relations.”

How removing the dams will change the landscape

Tribes and environmentalists had fought for decades for removal of the dams as part of a basin-wide restoration effort. After a fish kill in 2002, spurred by toxic algae entering the river from the reservoirs that had acted as blue-green algae nurseries, tribes amped up the battle to “undam the Klamath” and restore health to the waters and lands the Yurok, Hoopa, Karuk, Shasta and Klamath Tribes have inhabited and stewarded for millennia.

In 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the dam removals, and demolition began in 2023. The first dam, Copco II, came down in mid-2023. Copco I demolition began in March. FERC approved an early start to Iron Gate’s removal process.

The final dam, JC Boyle, is expected to come down this fall, just in time for Chinook salmon season.

Restoring a river:How removing 4 dams will return salmon to the Klamath River and the river to the people

When all the dams are gone and the Klamath flows freely again, salmon and other fish will once again seek out their ancient spawning waters. Water quality, always an issue in northern California and southern Oregon due to high natural concentrations of phosphorus, will improve as free-flowing water carries the nutrient away. Wetland and juvenile fish habitat restoration is also in progress.

Hillman acknowledged that the dams and reservoirs are on the ancestral lands of the Shasta Indian Nation. The 300-member tribe has asked for the return of 2,200 acres of land that were once under water. The land was taken by eminent domain in the early 1900s.