Salmon are nosing at the riverbanks trying to escape the Klamath River

As dam removal inches into view, fish have to survive increasingly compounding calamities.

Tribal scientists had hoped that the incoming fall run of adult chinook salmon would escape the devastating effects of August’s debris slide on the Klamath River, which killed tens of thousands of fish. But they were disappointed. The salmon, which were gathering at the estuary at the time of the debris slide, migrated upstream early to spawn and found themselves trapped in toxic waters.

 

“The river really hasn’t cleared up. It’s still really muddy,” said Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe’s natural resource policy consultant, weeks after a late July thunderstorm sloughed ash and debris into the water, reducing oxygen levels to zero for two consecutive nights and smothering everything in the water. In late August, the fall run of adult salmon entered the lower Klamath and started dying as well. The fish that did make it upriver exhibited unusual high-stress behavior, such as nosing at the riverbanks in search of a way out of the sediment-heavy water.

What the river really needs, according to Karuk Tribal Fisheries Field Supervisor Kenneth Brink, is a good springtime flow to flush out the debris. But spring, of course, isn’t coming anytime soon. There is water behind Iron Gate, the Klamath’s lowermost dam, but toxic algal blooms have made it hazardous to salmon, too. “It’s crappy water,” Tucker said.

So tribes and partner agencies released water from the Lewiston Dam on the Trinity River, a tributary of the Klamath, sending a rush of cold, clear water downstream from the Trinity-Klamath confluence. But the release didn’t help the fish farther up the Klamath. And the influx of cold water actually created another problem: It encouraged more salmon from the estuary to swim upriver, where they were trapped in the Klamath’s toxic warm water.

Also in late August, a string of 100-plus-degree days warmed the Klamath’s water to levels unhealthy for salmon, and spread the bacteria that causes gill rot — the disease that caused the death of thousands of chinook and coho in 2002, a disaster that launched the movement to remove the river’s dams.

“It’s crappy water.”

Shari Witmore, a fish biologist at the NOAA, and Kenneth Brink, Karuk Tribal Fisheries field supervisor, inspect the mouth of the Seiad Creek, a tributary to the Klamath River. Dead fish, wooded debris, algae and heavy sediment loads suffocate the waters of the Klamath River.

All the intersecting calamities make it hard to know the cause of any particular effect on salmon health and behavior. “We’re still not 100% sure about how the impacts of that slide are affecting fall chinook,” said Shari Witmore, a fish biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s unclear how much of this is temperature-driven and disease-driven, versus the turbidity in the water column right now, or oxygen levels.”

Brink said the Karuk Tribe — along with the Yurok Tribe, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies — is monitoring the salmon population closely. “They’re all-hands-on-deck,” he said. But Brink and Tucker agreed that, short of dam removal, there’s not much they can do for the salmon at this point. “This is why we have ceremony. We have to pray for these fish,” Brink said. “That fish and that river, it runs parallel with the health of our people. When that river’s hurting, we’re all hurting.”

Salmon will have to endure two more seasons of badly degraded Klamath waters if they are to survive long enough to see the dams removed. On Aug. 26, the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission issued its final environmental impact statement for the removal of four hydropower dams from the Klamath River, almost exactly 20 years after the push for removal began.

FERC’s environmental impact statement recommends dam removal, noting that no alternatives “would meet the need to address the factors that are affecting the Klamath River salmon runs in a timely enough manner to reduce the risk of their extinction.”

“They agree with our proposal, they support our plan,” said Tucker. The environmental impact statement came slightly ahead of schedule, but not soon enough to enable the January 2023 drawdown of the reservoirs that organizers had hoped for. According to the current timeline, construction of supportive infrastructure, like roads for demolition equipment, will begin early next year. Reservoir drawdown will begin January 2024, and dams will come down the following summer. By October 2024, fish should be moving up the river toward ancestral spawning grounds.

“We are still waiting for a couple of major federal authorizations to come through,” said Mark Bransom, CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. “That includes the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit from the Corps of Engineers, as well as the surrender order from FERC” — though the surrender order could arrive as early as next month.

Dam removal is expected to have dramatic ecological benefits. But, as Tucker pointed out, it will also have some immediate downsides: All the toxic algal water behind Iron Gate Dam, for example, will wash downstream, and bulldozers will inadvertently release chunks of sediment into the river. Since the removal project will be conducted between salmon runs, however, only a single cohort of salmon will have to face these early impacts.

One of the landslides resulting from the McKinney Fire sent sediment, ash and debris from Vesa Creek into the Klamath River. The debris brought oxygen levels in the river to zero for two consecutive nights.

“When the dams come down, we’re going to see this landscape-scale change in the basin.” 

And positive effects will be immediate, too. The cold, clear spring water that is now absorbed into the toxic soup behind the dams will flow freely downstream and become available to migrating fish. River temperatures are expected to normalize into patterns the fish are adapted to. And the initial rush of water from Iron Gate will also disrupt the river substrate, carrying away the annelid worms that host another disease, Ceratonova shasta, that is often fatal to juvenile salmon. “We might take our levels of disease that the out migrants pick up, we might take that down to zero,” Witmore said.

“When the dams come down, we’re going to see this landscape-scale change in the basin,” she added. “Hopefully, that’ll reset us back so that there are fewer of those tragedies.” Heat waves and disease outbreaks will still happen, but their effects will be buffered by healthier habitats. “I have really good trust in the scientists that we have,” Witmore continued. The Klamath Dam removal project, she says, has brought together tribes, agencies and NGOs and created a groundswell of public goodwill. “There’s such a tidal wave of support and momentum. It almost feels like it’s too big and too important to fail.”

B. Toastie (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.