Klamath River Named 2024 “River of the Year” by American Rivers, River Champion Awards Honor Leaders Who Made Historic Dam Removal and River Restoration Possible

February 28, 2024

Contact: Amy Souers Kober, 503-708-1145 

Marcus Kahn, 510-679-1899 

Washington – American Rivers today announced that Oregon and California’s Klamath River is the 2024 River of the Year, celebrating the biggest dam removal and river restoration in history. American Rivers also announced the recipients of the 2024 River Champion Awards – leaders who have been instrumental in the ongoing restoration of the Klamath. The awardees are: Yurok Tribe, Karuk Tribe, Klamath Justice Coalition, Berkshire Hathaway, State of California, State of Oregon, Klamath River Renewal Corporation, and Ridges to Riffles Indigenous Conservation Group. 

The River of the Year honor recognizes significant progress and achievement in improving a river’s health. In recent years American Rivers has awarded this honor to the Cuyahoga, the Delaware, and the Neuse rivers. The annual River Champion Awards recognize leaders who are improving lives and strengthening our nation by advancing collaborative solutions for healthy rivers and clean water.  

“On the Klamath, the dams are falling, the water is flowing, and the river is healing,” said Tom Kiernan, President and CEO of American Rivers. “The Klamath is proof that at a time when our politics are polarized and the reality of climate change is daunting, we can overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges and make incredible progress by working together. This is why American Rivers is naming the Klamath the River of the Year for 2024.”  

Indigenous peoples of the Klamath basin have been the caretakers of the Klamath River since time immemorial. Four hydropower dams, built between 1911 and 1962, blocked salmon habitat and devastated the river’s water quality. The plight of the Klamath galvanized national attention in 2002 when an estimated 70 thousand salmon were killed by toxic cyanobacteria growing in the reservoirs behind the dams. Local Indigenous families mobilized following this traumatic event, starting a campaign to remove the dams. The Tribes advocated tirelessly through the federal dam relicensing and subsequent legal proceedings. Ultimately, the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, along with the dam owner Berkshire Hathaway (owner of PacifiCorp), the states of California and Oregon, and conservation organizations signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement – the agreement that ultimately led to dam removal. 

“The 2024 River Champion Awards spotlight the power of Indigenous leadership, grassroots advocacy, and collaboration. Rivers and waters across the country face many challenges. We must carry forward the lessons from the Klamath, and the examples set by these leaders, to protect and restore rivers nationwide,” Kiernan said. 

Dam removal on the Klamath River began in the fall with demolition of Copco 2 Dam. Decommissioning of the remaining three dams and drawdown of the rivers began last month. Restoration of the river, streams, and lands impacted by the former reservoirs is being led by restoration contractor RES and the Yurok Tribe. Planting of more than a billion seeds in the lands exposed by drawdown has already begun. 

The benefits of river restoration will be far-reaching for all who live along the river. The Tribes who have cared for and depended on the Klamath since time immemorial will see vital aspects of their cultures restored. The river’s water quality will improve as the stagnant reservoirs choked with toxic cyanobacteria disappear. Salmon will once again have access to hundreds of miles of habitat so they can multiply and thrive, supporting other species from bears and eagles to orca whales and people. 

The River of the Year honor is generously supported by Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Perkins Coie, and RES, the nation’s largest nature-based solutions company.  

2024 River Champion Awards: 

Yurok Tribe 

On the coast, the Yurok Tribe’s ancestral territory stretches from the Little River in Humboldt County to Damnation Creek in Del Norte County. The tribe’s territory extends for 44 miles up the Klamath River to its confluence with the Trinity River. The Klamath and Trinity rivers are the lifeline of Yurok people, as the rivers provide the majority of the food supply including ney-puy (salmon), Kaa-ka (sturgeon), and kwor-ror (candlefish). Today, the tribe is the largest in California with more than 6,400 enrolled members. The Yurok Tribe was a signatory to the Amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which ultimately led to dam removal. The Yurok Tribe has played a pivotal role in every single aspect of Klamath River Dam Removal and restoration efforts. The Yurok Fisheries Department and Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation are all at the forefront of these projects. The Yurok Fisheries Department collected a substantial volume of the approximately 20 billion native seeds that will be used to restore the 2,000-acre reservoir reach in between the four dams. Yurok Fisheries crews, RES and many project partners are now hand-sowing the seeds throughout the empty reservoirs. The Yurok Tribe is working on large-scale river restoration projects in other parts of California too. Informed by Traditional Ecological Knowledge and western science, the Yurok Fisheries Department and Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation transform severely degraded aquatic ecosystems into highly productive habitat for salmon as well as many other native fish and wildlife species. The Yurok Tribe has completed numerous projects on the Klamath and Sacramento Rivers and many smaller streams. 

Karuk Tribe 

The Karuk Tribe lives in its ancestral homelands along the middle part of the Klamath River, between Weitchpec and Seiad, California. The Karuk Tribe was a signatory to the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which ultimately led to dam removal. As Karuk Tribal Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery stated in a video shared by KRRC, “Having the dams come out and having the almost 400 miles of salmon spawning grounds, and better water quality, is going to be imperative to life along the Klamath River. I was born and raised along the Klamath River and the fish, the river, and the clean water provides a perfect way of life. We are looking forward to the opportunity to have clean water again, and spawning grounds so our children can again experience the opportunities to fish and provide a food source for their families. It will be a great benefit to everyone who lives along the Klamath River.” 

Klamath Justice Coalition  

The Klamath Justice Coalition was founded by grassroots Indigenous leaders more than two decades ago. They created what is now known as the “Un-dam the Klamath Campaign”. The refrain “Undam the Klamath, bring the salmon home” was heard from fishing boats on the river all the way to Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. As one of the co-founders Molli Myers (Karuk) states, “this was a movement of the people”.  

Berkshire Hathaway  

Berkshire Hathaway is the parent company of PacifiCorp, which owned and operated the four Klamath River dams. In 2020, Berkshire Hathaway played a pivotal role in securing the final dam removal accord: the company agreed to transfer operating licenses of the dams to the states of Oregon and California, and the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. Berkshire also agreed to share the burden of any cost overruns.  

States of Oregon and California  

Bipartisan support was key to success on the Klamath: elected leaders from both parties saw the value of a restored Klamath River, with California Governor Schwarzenegger and Oregon Governor Kulongoski signing the original agreement to remove the dams in 2010. A decade later, California Governor Newsom and Oregon Governor Brown took a vital step, joining the Klamath River Renewal Corporation as a co-licensee, allowing PacifiCorp to relinquish the operating license for the dams. California Proposition 1 water bond funds combined with PacifiCorp ratepayer funds to make the project possible. Never before has a state contributed this much funding to a dam removal project.  

Klamath River Renewal Corporation  

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) is a nonprofit organization formed by signatories of the amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, to take ownership and oversee removal of the four hydroelectric dams on the river. Managing the biggest dam removal and river restoration project in history is no small feat. KRRC’s team has prioritized safety, community engagement, and helping the people of the basin take steps toward a shared, sustainable future.  

Ridges to Riffles Indigenous Conservation Group  

Ridges to Riffles is advancing Indigenous-led restoration efforts on the Klamath and other rivers. R2R works in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to advance their cultural and natural resource interests through legal and policy advocacy. In partnership with the Yurok Tribe, R2R is working on Klamath dam removal, habitat restoration, instream flows, and personhood rights for the Klamath River.  

About American Rivers 

American Rivers is championing a national effort to protect and restore all rivers, from remote mountain streams to urban waterways. Healthy rivers provide people and nature with clean, abundant water and natural habitat. For 50 years, American Rivers staff, supporters, and partners have shared a common belief: Life Depends on Rivers. For more information, please visit www.AmericanRivers.org