What’s Current? Issue #26 – The Klamath Basin ‘Restoration’ is at What Cost?

If you scan news reports and search results for Klamath Dams removal, the news is universally upbeat. “The river will run free again.” “A step towards justice.” “Largest river restoration project in American history!” But as waters now drain out of the reservoirs behind these half-demolished dams for the last time, unanswered questions persist.

How this project will impact the region’s agricultural economy, and whether or not it’s even the most environmentally worthwhile use of mitigation funds on the Klamath watershed is not beyond debate. In fact, if you speak with nearly everyone actually living along the middle and upper Klamath, you’ll get informed opinions and testimonials that are completely different from what you’ll find in the downstate press, or from press releases from the many NGOs, agencies, and government contractors partaking of this half-a-billion dollar taxpayer-funded bonanza, or via any mainstream social media or search engines.

It isn’t hard to figure out why opponents of dam removal have been drowned out. The population of Siskiyou County is 44,118. The population of neighboring Modoc County is 8,661. To save their farms and ranches, these people hold bake sales. The special interests chasing that half-billion in mitigation funds (likely just the first tranche) bring with them the combined weight of countless state and federal agencies, powerful environmentalist organizations, and assorted civil engineering and environmental vendors hungry for a huge contract. It’s no contest.

It would take volumes to adequately describe the sequence of events that has led to the removal of dams on the Klamath, or the observations and theories and events leading up to the decision. But voices that contradict the prevailing narrative and policies haven’t been heard. They would include the Siskiyou County Water UsersKlamath Basin Crisis (a Facebook group), and “Shut Down & Fed Up,” representing upriver agricultural communities. From talking with members of these organizations and others, a story emerges of deception, distortion, misrepresentation, harassment, betrayal, and ultimately, abandonment.

Here are questions that have not been answered to the satisfaction of the people most affected by the removal of the dams. It is in everyone’s interests, including the Native Americans who have been told that dam removal will restore salmon populations, to revisit these questions with honest debate between experts holding differing opinions. What if after all this work is done, the salmon still don’t recover? That is a distinct possibility, yet in the following questions there might, just might, lie more restorative alternatives.

1 – Where is evidence that salmon ever swam upstream into the upper Klamath River? Aren’t the canyons where the dams are built crossed by lava flows that prevent salmon from continuing upriver? Won’t the red band trout upriver just eat any introduced salmon, just like the bass do in the Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers?

2 – Is it true that once the dams are gone, it will be found necessary to blast “volitional passages” through natural rock formations that would otherwise prevent salmon from swimming further upstream? How is this consistent with restoring the river to its original natural state?

3 – Since increasing the flow of the lower Klamath to wash away the parasite Ceratomyxa shasta that kills salmon has not helped, why, just once, hasn’t the opposite tactic been tried? Why not reduce summer flows so the parasite, which lives on the banks of the river, will dry out and die?

4 – Isn’t it true that before dams and diversions were altering the natural flow of the Klamath, the flow from the upper Klamath downriver would nearly dry up most summers, with most of whatever summertime flow there was coming from springs and tributaries? Why then is there such an emphasis on summertime flows?

5 – Isn’t it also true that historically, most of the flow from the upper Klamath went into Tule Lake, and water would only flow naturally downstream in high volumes during floods?

6 –  Won’t maintaining healthy summertime flows on the lower river artificially be harder if these mid-river dams are removed? Won’t the water released from the bottom of those reservoirs be cooler than water that has to flow all the way across the high desert from the Upper Klamath Lake in Southern Oregon?

7 – When the four mid-river dams are removed, will water in Upper Klamath Lake behind the Link River Dam that normally is allocated to maintain the Tule Lake and irrigate the upriver farms be used instead to be sent downstream? And will that even be helpful (see #4, #5 and #6)?

8 – The sucker fish in the Klamath Lake are also threatened by parasites. Why has policy been to keep more water in Klamath Lake in an attempt to save the sucker fish, when historically the lake has been shallow and would recede in the summer? Don’t the parasites and predators that attack sucker fish spawn in the shallows on the edge of the lake and would die if they dried out?

9 – People owning property along the Klamath and its tributaries used to keep “hatchery boxes” along the banks, where they would keep salmon fry until they were big enough to release. This practice is now prohibited, allegedly to prevent disease. But might not the benefit of reviving private hatchery boxes outweigh the risks?

10 – Why hasn’t more attention been given to the harvesting of salmon by international fishing vessels, along with the rising population of killer whales and seals that eat salmon? Why aren’t there steps taken to remove seals that crowd the estuaries during salmon runs?

11 – Won’t increasing flows down from the volcanic river bed in the upper river result in introducing more phosphate into the water, which will stimulate the growth of algae?

12 – For the amount of money being spent to remove dams that might actually benefit salmon by retaining the capacity to release cold water into the lower Klamath River, why not remediate major tributaries on the river instead? Why not invest in restoring narrow channels in the Salmon River? Didn’t floods in 1964 alter the hydrology of that river, rendering the channel wider and shallower, destroying what had until then been ideal habitat for salmon spawning? Why not fix the Salmon River and other tributaries? It would cost a lot less.

And then there’s the 20 million tons of silt behind these dams, silt that will clog downstream gravel spawning beds for who knows how long.

All but forgotten, there are the farmers and ranchers who have given their lives to producing food for us to eat. Better to import beef from Brazil and barley from Canada. Is that it?

Everything we see and hear about the Klamath River dam removal project is positive. But nobody in any position to slow the momentum of this project wanted to consider the possibility that the Klamath River ecosystem and the species therein could have been restored faster, and for far less money, even while leaving those dams intact.