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Blog Post · May 31, 2022

Commentary: Klamath Basin Dam Removal Needs a Science-driven Oversight Plan

photo - Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge

This commentary was published in Cal Matters on May 23, 2022.

The Klamath Basin is on the cusp of the most ambitious dam removal effort ever attempted. If all goes to plan, efforts will get underway by next year to bring down the four aging hydropower dams that divide the basin in half. Are we ready for this?

The ramifications of this dam removal effort are vast, affecting not only the river’s mainstem but ultimately all the tributaries where so much biodiversity resides. Removal of the dams will be an important first step—albeit with many steps to go—in improving salmon and steelhead stocks in the basin.

A robust science and monitoring program is essential to ensuring the success of the project—and will help guide future similar dam removal projects around the world. Although more than $450 million has been allocated for the dam removal, to our knowledge, little has been allocated to fund the science needed to evaluate it. This is a mistake.

Science in the basin has come a very long way in the past 20 years, thanks to efforts by the federal government, Oregon, California, the tribes, universities, consultants and various nonprofits. Efforts such as the Klamath Basin Monitoring Program and the Klamath Basin Integrated Fisheries Restoration and Monitoring Plan show great potential. But both efforts are a work in progress, and neither is focused on meeting the science and monitoring needs of dam removal.

If we’re going to have a science program ready for when the drawing down of the reservoirs begins, we have to get started on it now. Putting such a program together typically takes a year or more.

We encourage all interests in the basin to support the urgent development and funding of a science program devoted to evaluating the effects of dam removal and guiding management responses. Based on our long experience with various science programs, we offer four criteria needed for success. The program must be:

Hypothesis-driven: The foundation of adaptive management is that all management actions are hypotheses to be tested by modeling and monitoring. The key to success is to avoid the temptation to measure everything, but instead to focus narrowly on the handful of hypotheses that justified dam removal in the first place.

Inclusive: All parties need a seat at the table, especially the tribes that have the highest stake in the outcome and have developed increasingly sophisticated science and monitoring programs of their own.

Well-led: Strong leadership is essential. Even though the program is inclusive, it needs someone vested with decision-making authority and resources who will allow the program to be nimble.

Reliably funded: Too often, these programs are cobbled together by reducing funds for existing programs. In the long run, this approach is inefficient and creates confusion and conflict.

Based on other programs, we estimate that about $5 million a year for 10 years is needed. A combination of state and federal funding is the most likely source for this funding, although private philanthropy can help.

There are many models for this kind of program, both within and outside of government. The Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center is an example of a federally run program that addresses management hypotheses.

Another would be the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, a joint-powers authority that has strong leadership and is well-known for its inclusivity and consensus-based program planning.

A third option would involve developing a nonprofit modeled after the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the organization tasked with removing the Klamath dams.

All of these are viable options.

The whole world is watching the Klamath Dam removal project. This is an opportunity not just to get dam removal right, but to guide future management of the Klamath Basin and all other large dam removal projects throughout the West and, for that matter, the world.

All parties need to get on board with a focused science program, and they need to do it soon.


California rivers dam removal Freshwater Ecosystems Water, Land & Air