State and federal officials recently signed two agreements to reshape the Klamath River. If these agreements are fully implemented (and there are still some important hurdles ahead), they would lead to removal of the four aging hydropower dams that separate the Upper and Lower Klamath Basin, perhaps as early as 2020. This restoration effort would be the largest of its kind in the US, if not the world.
We were members of the 2001 National Research Council committee that first reviewed the environmental management challenges in the Klamath Basin. Our report, which focused on conflicts over habitat and water for threatened and endangered fishes, made many recommendations, including dam removal. We are gratified to see progress toward this objective.
There are many good reasons for removing these dams. They harm water quality, block access to spawning grounds in the upper watershed for declining stocks of wild salmon and steelhead, and are a financial liability to the company that owns and operates them. Their removal is both inevitable and appropriate.
While the agreements represent a major milestone, we had another conclusion: dam removal will not solve the Klamath Basin’s problems, although it is a necessary first step.
There is an understandable perception that reconnecting the Upper and Lower Klamath will lead to dramatic improvement of conditions for salmon and steelhead. After all, the largest dam removal in US history to date—the Elwha Dam in Washington—resulted in rapid improvements for these fishes and the ecosystems that support them. Other dam removals have had similar responses.
The Klamath, however, is very different. The removal of the Elwha Dam opened up 70 miles of pristine habitat, all protected within a national park. In contrast, the vast expanse of marshes in the Upper Klamath Basin through which the upstream rivers flow have been drained and farmed for more than a century. And the remaining lakes, including Upper Klamath Lake and Keno Reservoir, have significant water quality issues. If these and other problems in the Upper Basin are not addressed, the environmental benefits of taking down the dams will not be fully realized.
Dam removal will not solve the Klamath Basin’s problems, although it is a necessary first step.
For these reasons, dam removal on the Klamath is a commitment, rather than a conclusion. Sustained, well-funded efforts to restore and monitor habitat in the tributaries (where most salmon and steelhead spawn and rear), and to improve water quality in the Upper Basin must continue for decades after the dams come down. The agreements recognize this, but it is easy to lose focus once the primary objective—dam removal—is achieved.
The story of the Klamath dam removal effort is an object lesson for the deeply entrenched combatants in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. The Klamath agreements are a triumph of negotiation over confrontation and litigation. These agreements represent more than a decade of hard work on the part of the federal and state governments, farmers, environmental groups, and Native American tribes, who are especially critical to its success. Long-time adversaries climbed out of their trenches and negotiated a comprehensive fix. Agreements like this are, by virtue of their many compromises, naturally imperfect and difficult to come by. But in today’s complex, politically charged environment, they are the only way to make meaningful progress on resolving contentious water issues.