West Coast
FILE - The Iron Gate Dam, powerhouse and spillway is seen on the lower Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif., on March 3, 2020. The largest dam demolition and river restoration plan in the world is expected to begin in June. Gillian Flaccus/AP

CA - Inside California's Klamath River dam removal project, the largest in US history

Northern California river advocates and tribal groups have been fighting for more than two decades for the removal of four dams on the Klamath River. Their victory late last year set the stage for the removal project to become the largest of its kind in U.S. history.

Now is a particularly good time to learn about it, as preparations are already underway for the first dam to be removed starting in June. Here’s why this will be one for the history books.

The history behind the Klamath River and its dams

Running out of the Cascade Mountains through southern Oregon and northern California to the Pacific Ocean, the Klamath River has been part of the ancestral territory of the Karuk, Yurok and other Native American tribes since time immemorial. For centuries, the tribes relied on the river for water, transportation and food, especially for salmon, a staple of their diet. They also recreated and held traditional ceremonies by the river.

In the mid-1800s, the U.S. government began forcibly removing the tribes from the region, relocating them to reservations and taking control of the river and its resources.

Private companies began building dams on the Klamath in the early 1900s to generate hydroelectric power and support agriculture with irrigation, while providing flood control. By 1962, six dams segmented what was once a free-flowing river. The projects were initially celebrated by those who benefited, but over time it became clear that the dams significantly altered the river’s flow, temperature and sediment, and devastated fish habitats.

When did people start talking about removing the dams?

The relationship between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes who fished the Klamath nosedived in the 1970s with what became known as “the Fish Wars.” Essentially, jurisdictions across the West had outlawed traditional ways of harvesting salmon, and when the tribes continued their practices anyway, police, SWAT and National Guard forces cracked down.

The Supreme Court eventually reestablished treaty fishing rights in the mid-’70s, but a big problem remained: Fish numbers were abysmal, in large part because of the dams.

Fast forward to Sept. 27, 2002: More than 30,000 salmon were dead on the banks of the Lower Klamath River. The region had been in a drought, and after much infighting, the Bush administration decided irrigating farmlands was more important than protecting salmon. It was the largest fish kill in the country’s history, and Indigenous tribes were traumatized. The event drew national attention to the issue and galvanized efforts to remove the dams.

Why did it take so long to make the dam removal project a reality?

After several years of negotiations, the first official push to remove the Klamath dams came in 2005 with the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which targeted the four largest of the river’s aging dams. The tribes were the driving force, but all stakeholders could see that the structures were relatively small hydroelectric producers and useless for irrigation — and that they lacked crucial fish ladders. The problem was that Republican leaders and local landowners were suspicious of actions supporting the environment and the tribes, and they worried it would set a precedent of removing dams. The agreement expired in 2016 after Congress failed to pass legislation that would have implemented it.

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