Klamath River issues explained

Confused about what’s happening on the Klamath? Dams, salmon, irrigation and more.


It’s been a tough year for the Klamath River.

The Klamath, which flows through Oregon and Northern California and into the Pacific Ocean, is suffering from drought and infrastructure problems. That’s caused trouble, not just for the fish in the river, but also for the tribes and farmers who rely on it for day-to-day living.

Drought conditions are so bad this year that the U.S. Department of Agriculture allocated $15 million to support farmers who don’t have enough water for their crops. Klamath Basin tribes are also struggling to feed their people, but so far they haven’t received such support. In fact, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council cut back the Yurok Tribe’s salmon allotment to little more than half of what is needed.

The river’s dam problems

The water in the lower basin is too warm. Why? There isn’t enough water in the river for it to flow properly, so it stagnates in the sun. This is partly owing to drought — and to constant squabbles over water rights upstream — but it’s made worse by dams. Warm water allows fish diseases to spread more easily, which is why a massive number of juvenile salmon died this year on their way to the ocean.

There are six dams on the Klamath, four of them built before Environmental Protection Agency regulations existed. They lack fish ladders, so salmon can’t travel past them. They also don’t provide irrigation to farms, while the small amount of hydroelectric power they generate has been made redundant by the development of more recent and efficient wind farms. The dams’ removal would alleviate warming conditions and open up 400 miles of salmon spawning habitat.

To save the salmon, the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes began advocating for dam removal in 2001. Following a grueling two-decade fight, they succeeded: The dams are scheduled for removal in 2023. 

Meanwhile, in the Upper Basin, the Klamath Tribes — a confederation of tribes in southern Oregon whose headquarters are near Upper Klamath Lake — are fighting to protect c’waam and koptu, two endangered species found only in this area. The Klamath Tribes have senior water rights, and their priority is to reserve enough to protect the endangered fish. But local farmers want to irrigate their crops, too, and there just isn’t enough water for everyone.

The lack of water has stoked venomous anti-Indigeneity in the area and at times set the needs of the salmon at odds with the needs of the c’waam and koptu, which require water, too.

So, how did we get here?

An irrigation canal moves water through the Klamath Basin near Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon. Diverting water to irrigate agriculture threatens endangered species on the Klamath River.
George Rose/Getty Images

The Fish Wars

Let’s go back to the 1970s. For decades, it was illegal for tribal people in California to harvest salmon as they always had. The Yurok Tribe, whose reservation follows the shape of the lower Klamath River, fished anyway. Police, SWAT and National Guard forces descended upon the fishers with sometimes brutal force. This era is remembered as the Fish Wars. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled state laws in a landmark ruling known as the Boldt Decision, which upheld the treaty rights of Indigenous people to fish. But the fight didn’t end there.

Fast-forward to the early 2000s, when the region was suffering yet another drought. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, the branch of the Department of the Interior that helps govern water management in the West, decided to shut off irrigation to 170,000 acres of farmland around the upper Klamath. This had never happened before. Reclamation did this to save the salmon in the lower Klamath River, as well as the c’waam and koptu in Upper Klamath Lake. But the farmers weren’t happy about it.

After a dramatic political dispute, the George W. Bush administration sided with farmers and turned the irrigation water back on. The result was the largest fish kill in the history of the United States, and even in the history of the Yurok. Around 30,000 adult salmon ended up rotting on the banks of the Klamath River. Yurok tribal members experienced this as a personal trauma. It also meant the federal government failed to meet its treaty obligation to fulfill the tribes’ water rights that year. 

The struggle to undo state and federal policies threatening salmon and tribal sovereignty continues, with the children and grandchildren of Fish Wars veterans now carrying the torch. Their next goal is to get the four lower Klamath dams removed so that salmon can begin to thrive again. Today, they’re trying to keep the salmon on life support, hoping that the paper-pushers in Washington, D.C., approve dam removal faster than fish diseases can decimate the salmon numbers. But the outcome remains uncertain.

Beyond the Klamath and salmon

Other river systems in the Pacific Northwest are having similar issues. Dams on the Snake River, which flows through Idaho, Oregon and Washington and empties into the Columbia River, are also being considered for removal because of their destructive impacts on salmon as well as on Pacific lamprey, another ecologically important anadromous fish, and orca, which rely on healthy salmon populations for food. Removal of the Snake River dams even has the support of Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican, but it is still controversial among farmers. 

In northwestern Washington, the Upper Skagit Tribe is calling for the removal of a dam on the Skagit River, which flows into Puget Sound just north of Seattle. The local orca population is facing extinction partly due to salmon loss.

The largest dam removal in U.S. history occurred in 2011-2012, with the removal of the Elwha Dam (shown here in time-lapse), on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle. It was a success: Sediment and debris flowed downstream and reshaped the estuary at the mouth of the river, creating ideal conditions for a salmon nursery, as well as for Dungeness crab and other species. Salmon returned to repopulate the tributaries that the Elwha Dam had blocked.

If the Klamath River’s four lower dams are removed, scientists expect similarly positive results. But irrigation issues along the upper Klamath will likely remain contentious, because climate change shows no sign of replenishing the already-scarce water resources, which are clearly tapped beyond capacity.

“My people have lived on the Klamath for thousands of years, and I know that the salmon today are the descendants of those my ancestors managed,” Yurok tribal member Brook Thompson wrote in High Country News earlier this month. “These salmon are a direct tie to my ancestors — the physical representation of their love for me. The salmon are my relatives.”

Brian Oaster (they/them) is an editorial intern at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

Note: This story has been updated to correct that the c'waam and koptu fish are found in only in the Upper Klamath Lake area, not only in the lake itself.

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