West Coast
Ben Harrison, left, and Aaron Tuttle, right, with the Karuk Tribal Fisheries Program, collect young salmon for tagging in Horse Creek along the Klamath River on July 18, 2023. The Karuk and Yurok tribes are anxiously awaiting a renewed river as the dams come down. Photo by Semantha Norris, CalMatters

CA - The world’s largest dam demolition has begun. Can the dammed Klamath River finally find salvation?

As four aging hydroelectric dams are demolished, tribes and communities along the Klamath River wait anxiously to see what the future holds. “Once a river is dammed, is it damned forever?” experts ask.

Oshun O’Rourke waded into the dark green water, splashing toward a net that her colleagues gently closed around a cluster of finger-length fish.

The Klamath River is wide and still here, making its final turn north to the coast as it winds through the Yurok reservation in Humboldt County. About 150 baby chinook salmon, on their long journey to the Pacific, were resting in cool waters that poured down from the forest.

O’Rourke’s colleagues hoisted the net into a mesh-sided bin in the shallows to sort through their catch, in search of young chinook to test for a parasite that can rot fish from the inside.

Two years ago, during a deepening drought, most salmon captured for testing during peak migration were infected with the lethal parasite. One tribal leader called it “an absolute worst-case scenario” for the Yurok, who rely on salmon for their food, culture and economy.  

O’Rourke and fisheries biologist Leanne Knutson laid out 20 small dead fish on paper towels, then wrapped them in plastic to send to a lab that will check for the parasite. The rest were released back into the river, where they will swim for days to reach the ocean.

A few years from now, when these fish return as adults ready to spawn, it will be to a Klamath remade.

“These ones will return either as three or four-year-olds,” O’Rourke said, standing barefoot on the riverbank flecked with fool’s gold and crossed by an otter’s footprints. “And the dams will be gone.”

For more than a hundred years, dams have stilled the Klamath’s flows, jeopardizing the salmon and other fish, and creating ideal conditions for the parasite to spread.  

But now these vestiges of an early 20th-century approach to water and power are being dismantled: The world’s largest dam removal project is now underway on the Klamath River.

By the end of 2024, four aging hydroelectric dams spanning the California-Oregon state line will be gone. One hundred thousand cubic yards of concrete, 1.3 million cubic yards of earth and 2,000 tons of steel will be hauled out of the river’s path.

Tribal members, researchers, rural residents near the dams, conservationists and the fishing industry are all anxiously waiting to see how this river, dammed for decades, will change — and with it, its fish, wildlife and human neighbors.

It’s an existential question for rivers, especially in a region where water left in nature is often deemed wasted: “Once a river is dammed, is it damned forever?” experts ask.

So many uncertainties remain as the Klamath reemerges: Will sediment from the demolition harm the river and its inhabitants? Will healthy numbers of salmon finally return? Will it flood its banks more readily? What will the riverfront look like?

For O’Rourke, 31, a Yurok tribal member, the Klamath is more than a study subject — it’s home for her and her team, and the lifeblood of their tribe, which has inhabited this region since time immemorial. From the research boat, she gestures to the stretch of river where she grew up in her ancestral village, fishing with her father.

O’Rourke is hopeful that tearing down the dams will mean her son will have salmon to fish, too. But, as a scientist, she plans to investigate, seeking evidence that the river will rebound for the next generation.

“It’s hard to say for sure,” she said, “what things will be like in the future.”

‘To fix a place and right past wrongs’

The Klamath is often described as an upside-down river. It’s born in the high deserts of eastern Oregon as a trickle, and by the time it reaches the Pacific more than 250 miles later, it swells with water drained from more than 12,000 square miles of land, spanning five national forests and seven counties across two states.

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