Feature Story | 12-Oct-2023

Klamath Basin restoration: A new era for an ancient river

University of Southern California

The largest river restoration project in U.S. history is underway along the Klamath River, but climate change is complicating the effort and raising new challenges for water management in the region.

Four aging hydroelectric dams along the river’s Lower Basin are scheduled to be decommissioned by 2024, with the smallest dam already demolished and the others soon to follow. The project aims to restore the river to its natural, free-flowing state and unlock over 400 miles of essential spawning habitats for local wildlife, including several species of endangered salmon.

The $500 million project comes after decades of litigation involving local tribes, communities, farmers, government agencies and energy companies — all of whom depend on the river and its resources. But years of climate-induced drought have magnified tensions over water scarcity in the Klamath Basin, complicating what would otherwise be a straightforward resolution to long-standing environmental challenges.

“In dry years, there hasn’t been enough water for everything: the salmon, the tribes, the ranchers and the farmers,” said water law expert Robin Craig, the Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law at the USC Gould School of Law. “You can’t have agriculture and ranching without a reliable water supply because it’s too dry. But you also can’t have the fish with the dams that make the water supply reliable. There’s tension there that is hard to escape.”

River restoration: Climate change, dams pose a double threat to the Klamath

Most rivers flow from high elevations, such as mountain ranges, down to lower ones before emptying out into the sea. Not the Klamath.

The “upside down river,” as it is known, spans 263 miles and ranks among the largest watersheds in the American West. But instead of originating in mountains, its headwaters are in the arid deserts of Eastern Oregon, flowing slowly over flat terrain before pooling into large reservoirs that nourish distant urban areas and agriculture. From there, the river grows wilder as it traverses the rugged mountains and dense temperate forests of Northern California before finally spilling out into the Pacific Ocean.

This peculiar geography, coupled with more than a century of human intervention through the construction of dams that disrupt the river’s natural flow, has rendered this region particularly vulnerable to a multitude of challenges now amplified by climate change.

“For a long time, we’ve tried to control rivers to alleviate flooding, ensure access to water supply, and in the case of the Klamath dams, to provide electricity,” said Mitul Luhar, the Henry Salvatori Early Career Chair and associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “When we dam up rivers, we substantially alter natural processes, both in terms of the flow of water and the flow of sediment which help maintain the landscape and have significant impacts on water quality.”

Reduced water flow from the dams and agricultural runoff, combined with brutal heat waves and rising water temperatures brought on by climate change, have created ideal conditions in the river’s Upper Basin for toxic algae blooms to thrive. Luhar said the blooms travel far and fast, harming wildlife and posing a threat to public health as they move downstream.

In 2002, a combination of warm temperatures, low flows and fish bottlenecking caused a bacterial outbreak that killed more than 34,000 salmon, according to the California State Water Resources Control Board, with some counts suggesting the toll may have exceeded 70,000. The massive die-off — one of the worst ever recorded in the American West — spurred local tribes to advocate for the removal of the dams.

A battle over water rights

Experts highlight that the declining salmon population in the Klamath River has intensified age-old disputes over water rights, which climate change and water scarcity have only made harder to resolve.

For over 100 years, the river has been at the center of conflict between competing interests in the river, including tribes, businesses and farmers with different levels of water rights seniority.

Once the third-largest salmon run on the West Coast before it was dammed, the Klamath River and its fish have long been integral to the cultural and spiritual identity of Native American tribes in the region. For millennia, tribes such as the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Shasta and Klamath carefully nurtured the environment and relied on its bounty for sustenance. The river holds personhood status under Yurok tribal law, which entitles it to the same legal rights as humans, Craig said.

Despite the tribes’ long-standing presence in the Klamath River Basin, which should technically grant them senior water rights under Western water law, U.S. courts have historically awarded senior water rights to the area’s white farmers and ranchers, Craig said.

The West’s “Law of the River” — the collection of legal documents governing American rivers’ water apportionments — gives the highest priority to whoever first accessed the water and put it to beneficial use, a principle colloquially referred to as “first in time, first in right.”

“The Klamath is a tribal river, and it is often described that way. Until the Klamath Tribes finally got their water rights recognized and quantified in court, they lost out,” Craig said. “In 1983, when the courts ultimately ruled in favor of the Klamath Tribes, their water rights were determined to be extensive, dating back to time immemorial. This decision effectively placed the Klamath Tribes in a position of authority over the water within the Klamath River, particularly in Oregon.”

While the dam removal project promises to restore the river to its historic health and abundance, experts note that outcomes for the region’s stakeholders will be mixed.

Shon Hiatt, an associate professor of management and organization and director of the recently launched Business of Energy Transition Initiative at the USC Marshall School of Business, predicts that removing the Klamath River dams will reduce property values and tax revenue for counties as property owners with land next to the reservoirs lose their riverfront property.

Outcomes for local tribes will also vary, Hiatt notes. “Some Native American communities in the area were interested in having the dams removed not just for the salmon, but also in anticipation of the land reverting back to them,” Hiatt said. “They had hoped that when the reservoirs were removed, the land underneath the large lakes would be able to be transferred to their tribal reservation land. However, in the latest agreement, there was no clause put in that the land would go to them. And as of now, this land will remain under state control.”

While the restoration project raises hopes for salmon, experts warn that water woes in the American West will remain.

The increasingly severe effects of climate change are raising concerns among various stakeholders in the Klamath River Basin. Climate-induced drought is exacerbating water scarcity for everyone along the Klamath River, especially in California, where outdated and limited infrastructure makes it difficult to capture influxes of water from rivers and rain. Experts note that California hasn’t built water storage infrastructure since the 1970s, so despite last year’s record rainfall, the state is still facing a water crisis.

“As the challenge of meeting our state’s water demands looms large, the need for efficient water storage in reservoirs and its transportation to populous urban areas and productive agricultural regions is urgent. The central question at hand, however, is where to locate these vital infrastructure projects,” he said.

But experts emphasize that the river renewal and dam removal project is still a major victory for the conservation movement, which has long fought to protect free-flowing rivers and wildlife. For the first time, many of the facilities that conservationists have wanted to see removed from rivers are being taken down all at once, Hiatt said.

“If you think about it,” Craig said, “this will be the first time in over a century that salmon will be able to make it up to the Upper Klamath River. And that will be a wonderful sight to see.”


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