Klamath River

Map of the Klamath River watershed in northern California and south-central Oregon, that drains to the Pacific.

The Klamath River flows from a broad patchwork of lakes and marshes at the foot of the Cascade Mountains on the California-Oregon border, and winds southwest into California. After passing through five hydropower dams, the river reaches the Pacific Ocean south of the fishing community of Crescent City.

The river has been home to indigenous people for thousands of years and tribes including the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Shasta and Klamath rely on, and care for, the river today.

Klamath River salmon runs were once the third-largest in the nation, but have fallen to just eight percent of their historic numbers. Chinook and coho salmon, steelhead and coastal cutthroat trout, green and white sturgeon, and Pacific lamprey all rely on the Klamath.

More than 75 percent of birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway feed or rest in the upper basin, and the largest population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states winters in several national wildlife refuges there.

The Upper Basin

The upper Klamath basin has been called the “Everglades of the West.” However, almost 80 percent of the upper basin’s wetlands have been converted to grow thirsty crops such as potatoes, alfalfa, and hay, including nearly 23,000 acres on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges. Irrigation withdrawals and polluted farm runoff have harmed the river and its fisheries.

Thanks to the efforts of our partners, many projects have been completed or are currently underway that are designed to improve water quality and fish habitat while making it easier for landowners to meet water quality goals that both satisfy regulators and ensure healthy water supplies for people and wildlife.

Klamath River Dams

For nearly 100 years, dams on the Klamath have blocked salmon and steelhead from reaching hundreds of miles of habitat, and have harmed water quality for people and wildlife. Four dams – J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1,  Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate – built between 1908 and 1962, will soon be coming down. This river restoration project that will have lasting benefits for the river, salmon and communities throughout the Klamath Basin.

Iron Gate Dam then and now | Klamath River
Iron Gate Dam then and now | Klamath River

American Rivers and more than 40 stakeholders – including tribes, irrigators, commercial fishing interests and conservationists – helped craft the original Klamath agreements to remove the dams, restore habitat and resolve decades-long water management disputes.

Dam removal will restore access to more than 300 miles of habitat for salmon. It will also improve water quality – currently, toxic algae in the reservoirs behind the dams threatens the health of people as well as fish.

Restoring the Klamath River from American Rivers on Vimeo.

The four dams don’t provide flood control or irrigation. They generate a small amount of hydropower, which will be replaced using renewables and efficiency measures and without contributing to climate change. In 2008, the Public Utilities Commissions in Oregon and California concluded that removing the dams, (instead of spending more than $500 million to bring the dams up to modern standards), would save PacifiCorp customers more than $100 million.

This dam removal and river restoration effort will be one of the most significant the world has ever seen. Never before have four dams of this size been removed at once which inundate as many miles of habitat (4 square miles and 15 miles of river length), involving this magnitude of budget (approximately $397 million) and infrastructure.

But perhaps more important than the size of the dams is the amount of collaboration and the decades of hard work that have made this project possible. American Rivers has been fighting to remove the dams since 2000. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Karuk and Yurok tribes, irrigators, commercial fishing interests, conservationists, and many others, our goal of a healthy, free-flowing river is now within reach.

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation is managing the dam removal project.

  • Klamath River at Hopkins Creek, CA.
    Scott Harding, Klamath Riverkeeper