Rivers are the veins and arteries of our world, and they are essential to all life. In the U.S., we depend on our 3.5 million miles of rivers for our drinking water and the food we eat. Rivers provide crucial habitat for fish and wildlife, opportunities for recreation, and spiritual and cultural connections for us, our families, and our communities.

Rivers make life possible, yet we are losing them.  

Pollution, dams, habitat destruction, and climate change are harming rivers, fish and wildlife, and our families and communities. Lack of clean drinking water, increasing floods and drought, and species extinction are disproportionately impacting communities of color, Tribal Nations, and people in poverty. 

In order to heal our rivers and create the positive, systemic change we need for the long-term, we must unite as a powerful movement with a bold vision for clean water and healthy rivers for all. 

As American Rivers celebrates our 50th anniversary this year, we’re looking ahead to the next 50 years. We created this graphic to illustrate the future we are working towards, together with our partners and supporters. Achieving this vision will take all of us. 

On this World Rivers Day, we celebrate our rivers and recommit ourselves to the important work ahead. 

Susana Sanchez-Young’s illustrations are almost musical: They are catchy, buoyant, and expressive. The East Bay-based mom of two is the founder of The Designing Chica and an art director at the Los Angeles Times. Her clever bilingual plays on pop-culture references are emblazoned on everything from coloring books and paint kits to stickers and wall art. Susana’s art is infectiously happy, and we loved teaming with her to celebrate American Rivers’ 50th anniversary — and the vibrancy of rivers. Find Susana on Instagram @TheDesiginingChica.   

We are proud to offer a T-shirt featuring an original design by The Designing Chica for Hispanic Heritage Month, which will help support our longtime partners at the Hispanic Access Foundation.  

What inspires your art?  

My crazy, cultural upbringing inspires my art and my life. My mother is from Guatemala, my father is from Nicaragua, and I was raised in Hollywood. My parents taught me to love my culture, our music, and speaking Spanish at home. My hard-working mother and aunts and grandmother would take me to clean houses with them after school — houses of movie stars and directors and writers in the Hollywood Hills. There were enormous rooms filled with art and photography, and my job would be to dust and clean out the trash. I would take forever because I loved staring into canvases that were out of this world and taller than me. I would collect all the thrown-out newspapers and magazines, and I would take them home to create collages. I would admire the designed spreads from Vogue before I knew that graphic design and lettering was a career! 

Susana-TheDesigningChica Bio Pic
Susana Sanchez

Tell us about The Designing Chica. Why did you start it?  

When I was pregnant with my first child, I could not find nursery art that represented my bicultural family. I knew chicos and chicas like me wanted representation. At the time I was an art director and designer at the Washington Post, working late hours. I was stressed and tired with a hectic commute, but since I had design and illustration skills, I thought, “Why not create something for myself?” I became my own client! I gave myself more work, but it became therapeutic and fun. I created a type-driven alphabet design that I fell in love with.  

Lots of people started asking me to make them custom designs and stationery for their children’s rooms. When my second child turned two, I launched The Designing Chica. Self-funded! I was still working 10-hour days, seeing my kids only in the morning and coming home after a two-hour commute at midnight. I was always exhausted, but excited to create because I had all these ideas percolating in my head. I would stay up late and I sketched and designed postcards with bilingual sayings. It became my passion, and my designs took off!  


What inspired you about this project with American Rivers? 

I grew up going to Yosemite every summer and spending countless hours in the Merced River. I loved seeing fish swim around my ankles and trying to catch them! I loved collecting and throwing rocks, trying very hard to make each rock skip. I loved bird watching and seeing the birds jump into the water and flutter back out with something to eat in their beaks. I loved staring at the stream over my legs and how the colors would shimmer and change with the reflection from the sun. My siblings and I would splash around and just have a blast for hours. Being in the river as a child was my happy place. As an adult, nothing has changed. You have to pull me away from every river we go to as I can just stay and sit in the water for hours. This piece for American Rivers was inspired by those beautiful memories, made only possible by my hard-working immigrant parents.   

What is your favorite river? 

The Merced River in the Yosemite Valley is number one in my book! I take my kids to Yosemite every year now so I can relive my childhood memories, and to make new ones with my husband and children.  

Susana Sanchez-Young in the Merced River in Yosemite
Susana Sanchez-Young in the Merced River in Yosemite

Lastly, what drove us to purchase our East Bay home seven years ago was a tiny river in our backyard. Every day I get to go outside and listen to the creek’s waterfall and it’s my little private paradise. Sometimes there’s a group of ducks floating along, and hummingbirds buzzing about. Deer come and go, owls and hawks are my outdoor pets, and I once saw a river otter swimming and splashing around like he owned the place. My little river is a beautiful sight to wake up to. The river gives me life!  

One of the primary concerns when planning for dam removal is the impact of sediment transport on water quality, river health, and the communities that depend on healthy rivers. Sediment forms when rocks and soil weather and erode. We think of rivers as something that moves water, but just as important is its ability to move and shape the earth. Sediment comes in all shapes and sizes—everything from silts and clays to coarse sand and gravel. Each of these kinds of sediment mean different things for rivers and aquatic life. Coarser material like gravel and sand often makes up the bed of the river and help create and maintain complex habitat upon which many aquatic communities depend. The presence of dams can starve downstream reaches of sediment, which can lead to increased bank erosion. 

Dams create reservoirs and reservoirs accumulate sediment over time—more than 100 years in the case of the four dams being removed from the Klamath River. The degree of sedimentation downstream following a dam removal depends on multiple factors, such as sediment volume, sediment management plans (i.e., phased removal of a dam and passive release of material, dredging), the river’s geomorphology, and the composition of the sediment itself (e.g., fine grain, mud, or coarse). Studies of previous dam removals have shown the resilience of rivers following dam removals. Rivers have the capacity to recover from the influx of sediment after dam removal within a period of days to a few years and tend to thrive afterward. After an initial phase of disturbance following a large removal, the geomorphology of the river stabilizes as the river begins to heal.

We can get a sense of how one day the Klamath River will thrive again by looking to other successful removals. The removal of Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in 1999 is a story of restoration and revitalization. Its removal reconnected migratory corridors that had been cut off for 162 years, improving habitat for Sturgeon, alewife, eagles, and osprey. Millions of alewife now return to the Kennebec. 

Edwards Dam on Kennebec River Pre-Removal | Photo by American Rivers
Edwards Dam on Kennebec River Pre-Removal | Photo by American Rivers

Another high-profile dam removal where passive release of sediment was utilized is the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington State. The 125-foot-tall Condit Dam impounded 2.4M cubic yards of sediment, 59% of which was comprised of silt, clay, and very fine sand. More than 60% of the reservoir sediment eroded within 15 weeks of breaching the dam Salmon and steelhead have rapidly recolonized the White Salmon River mainstem and tributaries thanks, in part, to natural river dynamics that allow these systems to recover quickly. In fact, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, redds were found throughout the former lake area less than a year after the dam was initially breached. 

The 2018 Bloede Dam removal on the Patapsco River in Maryland serves as another useful case study. The 34-foot-tall dam impounded approximately 186,600 m3 of stored sediment, 50% of which eroded within the first six months following removal. River herring were documented (via eDNA) upstream of the former dam site within the first year following removal, and American eel populations skyrocketed from 36 in 2018 to more than 36,500 in 2022. Like the Klamath River dam removals, each of these removals entailed a period of recovery and depended on cross-sector collaboration and advocacy. 

Bloede Dam before removal | Jessie Thomas-Blate
Bloede Dam before removal on the Patapsco River | Jessie Thomas-Blate
Bloede Dam before removal | Jessie Thomas-Blate
Patapsco River after Bloede Dam removal | Jessie Thomas-Blate

While the impacts of dam removals vary significantly, the evidence of the last 20 years points to the effectiveness of dam removal and the long-term benefits for communities, fish, and wildlife. With more than 91,000 dams inventoried by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several hundred thousand more low-head dams, aquatic ecosystems in steep decline (freshwater ecosystems are dealing with extinction at twice the rate of terrestrial ecosystems), and the impacts of climate change altering weather and precipitation patterns threatening the stability and durability of water infrastructure, dam removal has become an increasingly urgent priority in terms of ecological health, community safety, and climate resilience. Simply put, the fastest way to heal a river is to remove a dam. 

The flash flooding currently happening in Southern California and Nevada is the latest example of why we must transform the management and health of rivers and streams to strengthen communities in the face of climate change.  Tropical Storm Hilary was the first tropical storm to hit California since 1939 and it has dropped historic amounts of rainfall on parts of communities from southern California to Las Vegas and across the Southwest. This event follows just weeks after major floods caused widespread damage across Vermont and the Northeast.  

Climate change is fueling more frequent and intense storms, putting pressure on federal and state agencies to help communities manage the runoff and stormwater from these extreme events. This means adapting our existing infrastructure–elevating roads, expanding bridges, setting back levees- and it means making smart decisions about how we are developing along rivers and throughout watersheds.  

American Rivers is calling on federal, state, and local governments to protect communities from increasingly severe flooding. Decision-makers must:  

  1. Give rivers room to flood safely: Naturally functioning floodplains (the low-lying lands along a river) are a community’s natural defense against flooding. These areas soak up and store floodwaters and reduce downstream flooding. Keeping floodplains natural and undeveloped is the best way to avoid flood damage to begin with. Governments must prioritize protecting undeveloped floodplains and putting in place policies like the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard that require development to be resilient to Increasingly severe floods. 

    The fact is, many communities have already developed in their floodplains and have channelized and leveed their rivers, disconnecting them from their floodplains. All of this puts people and property at risk. Wherever possible, communities must work with residents and landowners to find solutions that improve their resilience and leverage state and federal funding to restore damaged floodplains to give rivers room to flood safely.  
  1. Protect wetlands and small streams: The Supreme Court’s recent Sackett v. EPA ruling stripped federal Clean Water Act protections for small streams and 50% of the nation’s wetlands. These wetlands, along with perennial and ephemeral streams, are critical to public safety because they absorb and store floodwaters. By leaving streams and wetlands vulnerable to destruction and pollution, more communities are now at risk. State and federal decision-makers must shore up protections for wetlands to safeguard public health and safety.  

    This record Southwest flooding highlights the important connection between rivers and the ephemeral and intermittent headwater streams that lost protection under the Sackett case and are now at risk of unregulated development. Ephemeral and intermittent streams are dry for much of the year but fill with water during heavy rains. These headwater streams make up 81% of the arid and semi-arid Southwest and are the source of drinking water for people in the Southwest. Unchecked development on headwater streams could further increase future flood damage. 
  1. Remove unsafe, outdated dams and levees: More frequent extreme rain storms mean more risk of dams, levees, and other infrastructure being overtopped or failing resulting in catastrophic loss of life and property. We cannot wait until dams fail to take action. Poorly maintained and improperly designed dams and levees need to be removed to protect downstream communities and infrastructure before they fail. States need programs that work with dam and levee owners to provide technical and financial support to remove dams and levees that they no longer want or need.   

    In addition, many dams are outdated and unsafe. Hundreds of dams have breached or failed in recent years because of heavy rainfall and flooding, putting communities at risk. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that aging dams across the nation need more than $70 billion in repairs.   

Communities are not prepared for the increasingly frequent and severe flooding fueled by climate change. Our infrastructure was not built for this. We must help communities prepare, and that means protecting and restoring rivers. A healthy river is a community’s best and first line of defense against flooding and other climate impacts. When we pave over streams, disconnect floodplains, and destroy wetlands, we strip communities of these vital defenses. We must protect and restore rivers to make our communities stronger, safer, and more resilient. 

Shovels are in the ground, and the Ackerson Meadow Restoration Project is underway! Ackerson Meadow in Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest is one of the most significant biodiversity hotspots in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, providing habitat for two California Endangered Species (Great Gray Owl and Little Willow Flycatcher), a federally endangered species (fisher), a California Species of Special Concern and petitioned for Federal listing (Northwestern Pond Turtle), and a number of rare plants. And this is all despite Ackerson’s highly modified and degraded state. What might Ackerson Meadow look like when flows once again nourish the landscape? What native species might decide to make it their home?  

Ackerson Meadow in Yosemite National Park | Melissa Steller
Ackerson Meadow in Yosemite National Park | Melissa Steller


The site’s restoration and biodiversity potential compelled the acquisition of Ackerson Meadow from a private landowner in 2016. This purchase, aided by American Rivers, National Park Foundation, National Park Trust, Trust for Public Lands, Yosemite Conservancy, and Yosemite National Park, was the largest addition to the park since 1949.  

Since then, Americans Rivers, Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite Conservancy, and Yosemite National Park have been working in partnership to realize the vision of a healthy Ackerson Meadow. The Ackerson Meadow Restoration Project shows the amazing work that can be done through diverse public-private partnerships. Multiple federal agencies, nonprofits, and foundations, and the state of California have come together to make this project a reality. In that sense, it is a significant landmark; however, the project will also be the largest “full-fill” (i.e., replacement of the meadow soils that have eroded away) meadow restoration project in the Sierra Nevada. Over the next two years, 150,000 cubic yards of soil (more than 15,000 10-yard dump trucks) will be used to fill in the eroded stream channel and restore the natural hydrology of the meadow. The restoration design also includes extensive revegetation of the meadow to enhance habitat for native species.  

Why restore Ackerson Meadow now? After more than a century of degradation resulting from past land uses like road building, water diversion, logging, and grazing, the stream that used to spread out and slowly drain across the surface of Ackerson Meadow has now eroded fourteen feet into the meadow, constraining streamflow to an erosion gully, lowering the water table of the meadow. It was clear, even at first glance, that focusing our collective efforts on Ackerson Meadow could have a huge impact. Meadow restoration is incredibly important for reasons besides biodiversity: healthy meadows improve water supply and water quality, healthy meadows store groundwater that can support Californians during the warm summer months and periods of drought, and meadows, much like floodplains and wetlands, tend to filter pollutants, such as sediment and wildfire ash, out of our water. There’s also recent research demonstrating that functional healthy meadows are among the densest stores of carbon that we know of (they can sequester more carbon per acre than a tropical rainforest), but while in a degraded state, they are actually sources of carbon emissions to the atmosphere.  

Grinding rocks used by indigenous inhabitants of the area in and around Ackerson Meadow | Photo: Evan Wold
Grinding stone used by indigenous inhabitants of the area in and around Ackerson Meadow | Photo: Evan Wold

By scaling meadow restoration in the Sierra Nevada, we can address the ecological threats facing both California’s rivers and the communities that depend on them. Ackerson is a significant piece of a regional effort to create resilience in California’s headwaters. American Rivers is working alongside conservation organizations in the Sierra Meadows Partnership (SMP) to restore 30,000 meadow-acres by 2030. This partnership provides a roadmap for collaboration in the conservation sphere, and the ambitious goal of 30,000 acres depends on support from the state and federal government, tribal nations, conservation organizations, private philanthropy, and local communities.  

Montana is known as Big Sky Country, the poster child for the great outdoors. When you visit, it all hits you – the lush green trees, abundant wildlife, wide open spaces, and crystal-clear waters. In the resort community of Big Sky, all of those things converge in the shadow of 11,167-foot Lone Mountain. What an ideal location for the 2023 Wildlands Festival. 

This year’s Wildlands Festival at the Big Sky Events Arena was the second annual event. Produced by Outlaw Partners in partnership with actor Tom Skerritt, American Rivers, and Gallatin River Task Force, the festival was billed as “the largest event to ever be held in support of conserving the Gallatin River and rivers across the country.”  

This year being the 30th anniversary of the release of A River Runs Through It, which was filmed on the nearby Gallatin River, it was fitting to partner with Tom Skerrit, who played Reverend Maclean in the film. Mr. Skerritt joined in the festivities and participated in a panel discussion during the fundraising dinner Friday night. 

“Of the 50 years I was in Hollywood, that’s (A River Runs Through It) my favorite movie,” Mr. Skerritt shared.  

It was a full weekend of opportunities for folks to learn about the importance of rivers and how they can help protect them. The weekend’s agenda included a dinner and silent auction on Friday and a star-studded lineup Saturday and Sunday featuring Lord Huron and Foo Fighters.  

Despite the parade of thunderstorms and torrential downpours that rolled through each night, the show went on and the festival raised over $500,000 for river conservation. This incredible feat will support our work to protect one million miles of rivers in Montana and across the country. 

“We’re working together with the Gallatin River Task Force to pass a bill called the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act that will permanently protect 20 of Montana’s most cherished rivers, including the Gallatin River,” said Scott Bosse, American Rivers’ Northern Rockies Regional Director.  

We greatly appreciate all of our partners and the work they are doing to take care of our rivers, and we can’t thank Outlaw Partners and the other sponsors of this event enough. Through ticket purchases, silent auction bids, merchandise purchases, and generous donations, you supported us and the rivers. Without you, we couldn’t do this important work.  

This weekend proved just how much Montanans love their priceless rivers. Now it’s up to the state’s congressional delegation to listen to them and take action.  

For the rivers! 

Farmers face some of the most daunting challenges to stay in business. Over the last decade, we’ve seen increased flooding which leaves many farmers, landowners, and ag producers at risk. The economic impact of severe storms, fires, drought, and flood disasters can be quite expensive. As a result, farmers experience crop loss, contamination, soil erosion, equipment and property loss, livestock loss, and debris deposition. This upcoming Farm Bill will provide the biggest opportunity to fight climate change and keep family farms and other small-scale producers financially sound so they can feed the world. 

What Does the Farm Bill Mean for Farmers? 

Lower Colorado River, Arizona | Photo by Amy Martin
Lower Colorado River, Arizona | Photo by Amy Martin

Every five years, Congress must reauthorize the Farm Bill to reassess, reevaluate, and reform key provisions to ensure programs from crop insurance to voluntary conservation practices are assisting everyday farmers. The bill includes $6 billion in annual conservation funding to improve soil health, restore watersheds, increase water quality, and protect wildlife while building resilience to climate change. The current Farm Bill expires on September 30th, 2023, and Congress is already drafting the bill. 

Through USDA’s conservation programs, farmers are able to tap into innovative, nationwide on-the-ground technical support and financial assistance as a way to incentivize and implement best practices. These methods include building riparian zones, creating streamside buffers, and adopting easements to tackle excessive nutrient pollution among many other multi-use benefits. Strengthening key programs like the Water Source Protection Program, the Emergency Watershed Programs, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program are just a few examples where farmers, landowners, and ag producers need Congress to act to keep up with the constantly changing markets, global economic outlook, production demands, population growth, and climate change. 

How Climate Impacts Rivers and Farming Communities 

Across the nation, our research finds flooding has caused $59.2 billion in damages over the last decade. Over that same period, farmers enrolled in the Federal Crop Insurance Program reported $29 billion in damages caused by floods and excess moisture, with Upper Mississippi River Basin states representing 34 percent of those damages. The cost of flooding impacts is rising as precipitation increases, and damages are expected to continue to escalate as climate change impacts intensify.  

In the West, acequias are falling through the cracks when it comes to fire and flood recovery assistance. Flood damage after the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire in the summer of 2022 impacted more than 700 people in New Mexico. The average market value for farms in the region is about $20,000. Yet these communities rarely receive any help. Local and state governments simply do not have the cash reserves to deploy financial resources to help small acequias associations. Rio Gallinas serves as a critical tributary to the Pecos River which is currently threatened by outdated watershed management plans. Traditional Hispanic acequia systems, with a 500-year history on the landscape, depend on the river to sustain agricultural and ranching communities. Unfortunately, these reoccurring natural disasters that farmers experience are making it harder to stay in agriculture. 

As a third-generation farmer, Brian Wong, who owns and operates BKW Farms, grows crops including nearly extinct heritage grains like white Sonora wheat on 4,500 acres in the heart of the parched Sonoran Desert. His farm is about 25 minutes northwest of Tucson, Arizona. Bakeries, restaurants, breweries, and flour mills as far away as Minnesota and Florida rely on their grain to sustain their own businesses. But extreme drought is taking a tremendous toll on the Colorado River, the nation’s #1 Most Endangered River. In partnership with BKW Farms, American Rivers is urgently working with partners such as utilities, and municipalities to fix the massive imbalance between rising consumer demands and a shrinking water supply. 

Lower Colorado River, Arizona | Photo by Amy Martin
Lower Colorado River, Arizona | Photo by Amy Martin

Congress Must Protect Farmers from Climate Change 

Right now, Congress can make it easier for farmers to lead in innovation and conservation by making policy changes that will most effectively and efficiently encourage more farmers to adopt multi-use approaches for long-term sustainable agriculture which will help rivers bounce back. These program refinements and investments will not only improve water quality and quantity but also keep our farmers farming for years to come. We can maximize yields and ensure river protection by taking the following steps for a successful Farm Bill: 

  1. Prioritize floodplain easements and other nature-based solutions with multiple-use benefits to address climate change. 
  1. Promote the implementation of river and land management best practices paired with intentional and purposeful climate-smart goals. 
  1. Support source water protection to reduce the risk of contamination to people, the environment, and wildlife.   
  1. Increase drought resilience by enhancing water infrastructure to alleviate water shortages impacting vulnerable populations. 
  1. Increase authorized levels of funding for programs that improve river health including water quality and quantity. 
  1. Remove barriers to technical assistance and capacity-building. 
  1. Increase funding for research and development on equitable and sustainable land and water stewardship. 
  1. Assess the safety of dams, levees, and reservoirs, and improve rehabilitation of infrastructure and safety assessments. 

See American Rivers’ Farm Bill Policy Priorities advocacy platform for more details. 

Today, we’re continuing our work on Capitol Hill to advocate for key reforms that will restore rivers and revitalize farming communities for future generations. Together, we can ensure farmers are not left behind and their families can reliably and confidently depend on key conservation programs to withstand natural disasters. Congress must help farmers stay in business and ensure healthy rivers are a priority in the 2023 Farm Bill.  

We urge you to send a message to your members of Congress. Will you join us? 

June is National Rivers Month and summer is upon us! What better way to celebrate than getting out on your local river? There are many steps you can take to help keep our rivers healthy this summer, whether you’re having fun out on the water or recreating elsewhere in nature. 

  1. Join an existing cleanup: check out our cleanup map to look for events happening near you!  
  1. Connect with your local river outfitter: this is another great way to find fun events in your area led by experts in river health and safety. You can also reach out to other local parks or recreation departments, nonprofits, or recreation clubs which may also be hosting public cleanups. 
  1. If there are no events near you, you can host your own cleanup

Of course, you don’t need to join an existing cleanup to have an impact; you can still take actions to promote river health when you’re out on the river alone or with family and friends. It’s always a good idea to follow the “leave no trace” principles when recreating in nature to conserve the natural environment. These are small but impactful steps you can take to preserve your local river – for example, repackaging snacks and drinks into reusable containers to avoid leaving trash behind, looking up regulations and concerns for the area you’ll be recreating in, observing wildlife from a distance, and leaving natural objects as you find them. Even if you’re just lazing down the river, you can bring a mesh bag to collect trash as you’re floating by! 

Whatever your plans, we wish you a fun and safe summer outdoors and hope you’ll join us in keeping our rivers healthy for many generations to come! 

For nearly 100 years, dams on the Klamath River have blocked salmon and steelhead trout from reaching more than 400 miles of habitat, encroached on indigenous culture, and harmed water quality for people and wildlife. The time has finally come for the four dams – J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and Iron Gate – built between 1908 and 1962, to come down. This river restoration project will have lasting benefits for the river, salmon, and communities throughout the Klamath Basin. Here are 6 things you need to know about the Klamath River Dam Removals.

  1. One of the largest dam removals in world history

Four dams along the Klamath River, which runs from Oregon into northwestern California, are scheduled to be removed in 2023 and 2024 – Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, Iron Gate, and JC Boyle. These dams total 400 vertical feet and choke fish passage along hundreds of miles of waterways, making this a historic opportunity and one of the largest dam removal projects to date. And construction has started! American Rivers is working in partnership with Tribal Nations, NGOs, the state and federal government, and local communities to ensure the health of the Klamath Rivers and the people who depend on its vitality.

Klamath Dam Removal Map | Klamath River Renewal Corporation
Klamath Dam Removal Map | Klamath River Renewal Corporation
  1. Tribal advocacy created this opportunity  

Tribal nations whose ancestral lands and histories have intersected with the Klamath watershed since time immemorial – including the Hoopa, Karuk, Yurok, Shasta, Klamath and Modoc people – have spearheaded the collective effort to remove the Klamath dams. The health of the Klamath is a key facet of these peoples’ history, culture, and subsistence, and tribal leadership and perspective has profoundly shaped the course of events on the Klamath over the past two decades. Tribally led advocacy included a high-profile protest when Berkshire Hathaway and PacifiCorp executives visited the Klamath in 2020. River advocates, led by the tribal nations, pushed the executives to join the effort to remove the Klamath dams. 

  1. Many years, many players, many obstacles 

Dam removal is far from a linear process, and the journey to get to the key milestone of removal began decades ago. Though Tribes had been advocating for dam removal prior to a series of legal conflicts amongst rightsholders in the Klamath basin in 2001, a catastrophic fish kill in 2002 catalyzed wider action for dam removal. Following the fish kill, which resulted in the death of nearly 70,000 adult salmon, Tribes, NGOs, agencies, the States of California and Oregon, and individual rightsholders began working together collaboratively to address the health of the Klamath River and its communities and the movement towards dam removal began to gain momentum. Discussions around a far-ranging restoration plan in the Klamath basin began in 2005, with a proposed plan introduced to Congress in 2010. This initial legislation, the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), failed to pass through Congress. After the KBRA failed, several parties to that agreement worked to find a solution to dam removal, ultimately known as the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA). The signatories to the KHSA, which include several NGOs, Tribes and the States of California and Oregon, created this plan as way to get dam removal done without having to seek Congress’ approval. Under the KHSA, the states and PacifiCorp take on the liability for and cost of the dams’ deconstruction, avoiding Congress entirely. This Agreement was signed in 2016, setting this new path in motion and creating the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the entity tasked with removing the dams.     

  1. Creating ecological resilience  

Removing the Klamath dams promises a wide range of ecosystem benefits that enhance regional climate resilience and aid the imperiled salmonid populations that once surged into the watershed from the ocean (now only 5% of historic averages). Significantly, dam removal expands spawning habitat for fish. Damming on the Klamath has also contributed to warmed water temperatures, leading to toxic algae blooms and decreased dissolved oxygen in the river. By removing the four dams, we can help bring salmonid populations back from the brink, while restoring habitat for other species. Restoration doesn’t end with the removal of the dams: additional restoration on Klamath River tributaries is needed to enhance fisheries, as well as the other flora and fauna that depend on healthy rivers to thrive. Land that was formerly inundated in reservoirs will be revegetated with native plant species following dam removal through natural seed dispersal, assisted by a program to plant millions of native and culturally significant starts and trees, providing ecologically vital riparian habitat.  

Salmon jumping out of river | Sinjin Eberle
Salmon jumping out of river | Sinjin Eberle
  1. Strengthening communities through dam removal 

As salmon in the Klamath River have declined, commercial and recreational fishing have had to periodically close, impacting tourism, fishing, and other economic drivers. Dam removal along the Klamath will create newfound recreation opportunities for local communities, while also helping provide and sustain the comprehensive impacts healthy rivers have on communities, including subsistence. PacifiCorp also determined that dam removal was the best economic decision for ratepayers in the region.  

  1. Key Dates to Know 

June 2023 – The removal of Copco No. 2, the smallest of the dams, begins.   
September 2023 – Full removal of Copco No. 2 and its related infrastructure is expected to be completed. 
January 2024 – Reservoir draw down begins for Iron Gate, Copco 1, and JC Boyle and will continue through the spring. Once drawdown is completed, dam removal and lakebed restoration activities will begin. 

Summer brings warmer water which means longer days and more opportunities to get out on rivers. The start of summer also means the start of hurricane season. We have already heard of the first tropical depressions that have formed off the Atlantic coast. While it is hard to predict exactly how “bad” a particular hurricane season will be, it is important that we underscore the importance of restoring healthy rivers and giving rivers room as one of the best ways to protect people and property from flooding.

There are several main factors exacerbating flood danger associated with hurricanes:

  • Climate change: The warming waters and greater capacity for the air to hold moisture is creating more frequent and intense storms.
  • Development and disconnection of floodplains: Floodplains are the natural, low-lying areas along rivers that absorb and store floodwaters. Centuries of development filling these low-lying riverside lands with homes and businesses, and cutting rivers off from their floodplains have now left nowhere for floodwaters to go, putting people and property in harm’s way when rivers flood.
  • Outdated and unsafe dams: Hundreds of dams have breached or failed in recent years because of heavy rainfall and flooding, putting communities at risk. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that aging dams across the nation need more than $70 billion in repairs.

Communities across the Southeast are all too familiar with destruction from hurricanes and flooding. It is a recipe for disaster when we have increasingly severe storms, combined with outdated, aging infrastructure. We want communities to have the resources they need to stay safe, and also enjoy all of the benefits, like clean water and health, that a river offers.

Our decision makers need to take action. Five actions needed to protect communities from increasingly severe flooding:

  1. Protect and restore floodplains: Naturally functioning floodplains store floodwaters and reduce downstream flooding. We need to take advantage of these natural defenses.
  2. Get people out of harm’s way: Poorly planned growth has allowed development in flood-prone areas, putting people in harm’s way. Where possible, we should replace developed areas with green spaces that can absorb floodwaters and buffer communities from damage.
  3. Strengthen state dam safety laws and programs: More than 80 failed dams in South Carolina over the past several years.  Coupled with dozens of additional dam failures in North Carolina it is clear that our current standards, especially for earthen dams which are by far the most likely to fail, do not provide safety with the reality of today’s extreme flooding.
  4. Remove dams that do not meet safety requirements: We cannot wait until dams fail to take action. Poorly maintained and improperly designed dams need to be removed to protect downstream communities and infrastructure before they fail. See https://www.americanrivers.org/2016/10/removing-dams-can-save-lives/
  5. Relocate industrial livestock feedlots out of vulnerable floodplains. See America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2017 listing of Neuse and Cape Fear rivers: https://www.americanrivers.org/2017/06/neuse-cape-fear-floodplain-protection/

One of the best ways to safeguard people and property is by protecting and restoring rivers.

If we take care of our rivers, they will take care of us.

Transforming California’s Central Valley will take a village. The effects of climate change on temperature and precipitation intersect with declining regional biodiversity and a long history of racial inequity that has increased flood risk for socially vulnerable communities. To do this work effectively, we need data-driven approaches that maximize our impact. American Rivers’ data collection and analysis at Elk Slough is a prime example of how we calibrate and implement successful restoration, and I was excited to leave the city and see habitat restoration in its early stages.  

I departed the Bay Area and drove through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta before heading north on Highway 160, a meandering road atop the levees that gird the Sacramento River. The East Bay’s suburban sprawl quickly turns to riverside towns separated from the farm fields that extend across the Delta by tree-lined banks that provide shade, cover, and habitat for salmon that forge upstream to spawn each year. Today, I’ll be meeting my colleague, Kristan Culbert, Associate Director of California River Conservation, at the Elk Slough Fish Passage and Flood Improvement, a 9.5-mile slough that empties into the Sacramento River. We convene outside the local library in the tiny town of Clarksburg, California, before venturing to the nearby slough on foot.  

The opening mechanism for the gate connecting Elk Slough to the Sacramento River | Marcus Kahn
The opening mechanism for the gate connecting Elk Slough to the Sacramento River | Marcus Kahn

Elk Slough is separated from the Sacramento River by a culvert that was built in the 1950s. Currently, a gate separates Elk Slough from the Sacramento River (opening mechanism pictured above), creating a warm, nutrient-rich backwater that does not support native fish and wildlife.  The Elk Slough Fish Passage and Flood Improvement project, led by Reclamation District 999, provides an opportunity for scientists, conservationists, engineers, farmers and flood managers to collectively develop solutions that restore riverine wildlife habitat while protecting nearby communities from flood risk. The project will redesign the gate separating Elk Slough from the Sacramento River, enhance native riparian forests along the banks of the Slough, and reduce flood risk for the town of Clarksburg and nearby farms protected by levees maintained by Reclamation District 999 and Reclamation District 150. 

In support of the project, American Rivers used the Habitat Quantification Tool to assess the quality and capacity of habitat for Swainson’s hawk and riparian land birds and identify potential restoration opportunities for the project. The findings from this study also identified opportunities to improve agricultural land management to support a greater number of wildlife species.  

Elk Slough provided an exciting opportunity to put these scientific tools to good use. Our findings showed that the many continuous tree stands in the project area provide excellent opportunities for riparian land birds to create nests, and that there are many opportunities for farmers to improve land management practices to better support foraging habitat for the state-listed Swainson’s hawk, which is commonly found nesting next to agricultural lands across the Central Valley.  The findings from this study have identified feasible, cost-effective strategies that local landowners can implement to benefit wildlife, such as choosing to grow more row crops that provide a better Swainson’s hawk foraging habitat. 

American Rivers is a national leader in using impactful science-based decision-making to restore rivers. Our teams are skilled in using strategies ranging from managing boots-on-the-ground planning and construction of river restoration and dam removal projects to collecting scientific data to assess opportunities for wildlife enhancement. Multi-benefit restoration work needs to be informed by scientific research and a clear articulation of priorities that aim to create a safe, sustainable home for communities and wildlife of the Central Valley. This work represents how diverse partners from the agricultural, flood protection and environmental communities can come together to leverage on-the-ground scientific data in the planning and implementation of important riverine habitat restoration while at the same time improving flood protection for the local agricultural community. And working in tandem with project partners to gather, assess, and utilize this research brings us closer to long-term sustainability along the Sacramento River, in California’s Central Valley, and beyond.  

May 31 marks National Dam Safety Awareness Day, established after the South Fork Dam failure of 1889 took the lives of 2,200 Pennsylvanians. The threat of dam failure persisted into the early 20th century for Californians, when the St. Francis Dam, located just north of Los Angeles, collapsed and swept a 140-foot-tall wall of water through San Francisquito Canyon, claiming the lives of over 400 people. Flash forward to the 21st century and spillway failures (when water overtops a dam’s emergency ‘spillway’, or passage for surplus water) on California’s Oroville Dam in 2017 and North Fork Dam in 2023, point to the increasing urgency of devoting state resources to dam removal, especially where dams have deferred maintenance issues. Moreover, as the effects of climate change intensify, unpredictable precipitation patterns are putting increased strain on our water infrastructure, underscoring the need to address these problems head-on. 

The risk of dam failure seems to exist out of sight and out of mind until a disastrous flood event. Of course, not all dams pose a significant threat to California’s communities, and some remain critical to ensuring California’s water supply and public safety. Seventy percent of the State’s water supply is facilitated by dams, fifteen percent of the state’s power is generated hydroelectrically, and dams have other uses as well, including flood control and providing recreational opportunities and habitat for wildlife. However, dams are not designed to stand indefinitely, and deferring dam maintenance jeopardizes the safety of downstream communities. Throughout California, there are thousands of dams, large and small, many of which do not meet safety standards because they are not adequately maintained or have been abandoned altogether. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, “Over half of California’s 1,476 state, federal, and locally owned dams are considered high hazard dams, meaning their failure would result in probable loss of human life and economic damage. Approximately 70% of the dams are greater than 50 years old,” with the overall rating of California’s dam safety coming in at a worrying C-.  

These structures pose an unacceptable risk in the likely event of intense precipitation, seismic activity, or simple deterioration. Scott Dam on the Eel River, a part of Pacific Gas & Electric’s Potter Valley Hydroelectric Project in northwestern California, provides a perfect case study of why we need to prioritize funding for dam removal. Constructed in 1922, Scott Dam is now obsolete – it no longer generates power for the surrounding communities and PG&E recently reduced associated reservoir capacity by 20,000 acre-feet due to seismic concerns.  Without funding for removal, it will continue to pose a threat to the thousands of residents who live downstream while deteriorating aquatic habitat. Scott Dam not only prevents passage for federally protected native fish species such as the Chinook salmon and steelhead trout and imperils the sustenance and cultural activities of local tribes, but recent inspections have indicated that the dam risks catastrophic failure in the event of seismic activity.  

Scott Dam on the Eel River | Kyle Schwartz
Scott Dam on the Eel River | Kyle Schwartz

Decision-makers at the state and federal levels need to push dam removal to the forefront of public consciousness and policy decisions. California has deferred the maintenance of high-hazard dams for decades, leaving obsolete, high-hazard dams in place, thereby limiting the resilience of our state’s water infrastructure. As the California legislature determines how to allocate the state’s budget, it is critical that funding for dam removal be included as an explicit line-item, rather than simply being folded into broad categories of funding and later deprioritized.  For obsolete dams, removal is the most effective and long-term dam safety approach to protect public safety.