Say Hello to the (New) Biggest Dam Removal in U.S. History

Say Hello to the (New) Biggest Dam Removal in U.S. History

233 miles of the Klamath River will run free for the first time in more than a century—so why are some paddlers bummed?

The Klamath River is one of only three rivers to cut through the Cascade Mountains instead of rising from them. The river existed before the mountains, holding its ground for millennia as volcanic peaks thrust up around it and glaciers formed and receded. But in 1910, before boaters could explore or document it, the first of seven dams was built on the Upper Klamath, taming most of its turgid rapids into a series of stagnant, algae-choked reservoirs.

Today, besides a few grainy photos and notes from engineers, nobody knows what lies beneath those reservoirs. But boaters are about to find out. On February 2, California and Oregon struck a deal with energy giant PacifiCorp and the Department of the Interior to remove four deadbeat dams from the Klamath, starting in 2020. It’ll be the biggest dam removal in U.S. history, allowing 233 miles of river to flow freely for the first time in over a century.

But despite opening up a steep gradient and deep canyons that could be hiding some of the West Coast’s best whitewater, not all river runners are excited. The handful of rafting companies that operate on a 17-mile stretch of class IV+ rapids known as Hells Corner depend on dam releases to ensure consistent flows during their summer season.

Longest W&S Map FINAL

“Right now, if someone calls me and says they want to book an Upper Klamath trip on July 15, I can say without hesitating that we’re going to run that trip,” says Will Volpert, owner of Indigo Creek Outfitters. After the dams are removed, though, that certainty will disappear. Volpert estimates flows will be too low during the busy summer months, and potentially too high during the spring. “It would essentially be the end of the style of trips we’re running now,” he says.

Some outfitters see the end of single-day class IV runs as the end of their business. But Volpert is more optimistic-he’s thinking of offering multi-day trips, like those on the nearby Rogue River, buying smaller boats to handle rocky stretches or pioneering new stretches of river.

Private boaters, on the other hand, are unequivocally excited. Bill Cross, a guidebook author and American Whitewater volunteer, says that any dam removal is a gift. Removing four of them at once is like having your birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa all rolled up into one.

By this metric, Cross has had a lot to celebrate lately. More than 850 dams have been torn down since 1994, according to the nonprofit American Rivers, opening thousands of river miles for fish, wildlife, fishing and boating. There’s still talk of building new dams-to mitigate drought in California and power Alaska’s growing population-but the era of American dam-building is largely over.

The era of taking down dams, though, is just beginning. As scientists measure the benefits of dam removal in places like Washington’s Elwha River, the pace of dam removals is accelerating. When the last of two Elwha dams was demolished in 2014, scientists were amazed by how quickly the ecosystem bounced back. Wild salmon blocked for decades immediately began fighting their way to historic spawning grounds upstream, songbird populations became more healthy, and clams, crabs and fish recolonized the river’s mouth.

Keno to Irongate and Regional Combined FINAL

The removal of the Klamath dams will likely bring similar ecological benefits. Today, the dams produce less than two percent of PacifiCorp’s output, but create toxic algae blooms and block more than a million salmon from reaching 420 miles of spawning grounds.

They also block kayaks, canoes, and rafts from accessing what could become a classic multi-day river trip. By analyzing gradient, flow, and depth-sounding results together with historical documents, Cross has put together a rough guide of what the submerged stretches of Klamath River will look like for paddlers. He calls it a “guide to a river that does not yet exist.”

Here’s what he’s gathered: From Keno Dam-which isn’t part of the dam-removal package-the river cuts for 45 miles through the Cascades before mellowing out into the Lower Klamath. Gradients in those 45 miles range from 16 feet per mile, a class II run, to more than 100 feet per mile-class IV or V terrain. The average comes out to 42 feet per mile. In places, canyon walls rise a thousand feet straight up; elsewhere, draining reservoirs would likely reveal sloping beaches and campsites. Cubic feet per second would likely range from 2,500 or more in the spring to around 750 in the summer.

Indigo Creek - Upper Klamath 2

Still, there are a lot of unknowns. Does Moonshine Falls, captured in an early photograph, still exist, or was it obliterated when the JC Boyle Dam was built? It’s one thing to say a run will have class V rapids; it’s another to uncover what those rapids might actually look like.

When the dams come down, the Upper Klamath will be one of the few places in the Lower 48 where a paddler like Cross, who’s 56, will be able to experience the sense of discovery of a first descent. “No one has ever boated this river before,” Cross says. “It’ll be a brand new exploration. I am extremely eager to be among the first to run this.”

Will Volpert, for his part, says he knew before starting his rafting company in 2013 that dam removal was a looming possibility. “It’s going to hurt our business, but sometimes that’s ok,” he says slowly. “I think it’s the right thing for those dams to come out.”

Photos by Indigo Creek Outfitters. Maps by Bill Cross

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Showing 8 comments
  • Louis G

    Great article, but why the dower subtitle?! Paddlers continue to be great advocates for dam removal, and it seems like even folks, like the outfitter in the story, who might suffer a bit economically, support the larger good.

  • Bob Woodward

    As a Hells Corner whitewater devotee, I will look back fondly on the run but remain more excited about the prospect of no dams on the UK (Upper Klamath) and multi-day trips.

  • martyg

    I can see the point. With the Keno dam in place (as I gathered from the article) there may be flow regulation. The Rogue benefits greatly from it. Summer flows might have been down to 300cfs this summer without water releases from the one remaining dam. This would not have only impacted boaters, but would have decimated the Springer population.

    An interesting aspect that I rarely see discussed… The Wild & Scenic act protects river corridors for 0.25 mile. On the Rogue, for example, if you go beyond that 0.25 mile in places the land is denuded by clear cutting. Those feeder streams dump warm water into the main stem, and without cold water releases from upstream summer run fish would likely be a thing of the past.

    On the river that flows past my door in he North Cascades we only saw a fraction of the usual Springer run – and 50% of those fish never reproduced due to stress from high temps / low flows.

    Some dams may be a necessary evil going forward. We’ve paved so much of our country over that few areas have pristine watersheds which naturally regulate flow and water temps. The river by my door comes out of pristine NF and NP lands, yet summer temps were so high that it severely impacted fish.

    I’m all for dam removal, and am all for removing the Snake River dams. However I don’t see all dams as evil. Some may provide important environmental mitigation as our climate warms and as riparian habitat is degraded.

  • Marcy

    I think this is a great thing for all concerned! The environment will bounce back and humans still get to enjoy the outdoors. I know out here in Massachusetts the power companies work with the outfitters so they know what time the release is. Great article!

  • EricT

    I remember in the 90’s when talk of tearing down Glen Canyon Dam first started. Rob Elliot, owner of AZRA, said in the Boatman’s Quarterly that he didn’t support it because in addition to unregulated flows, clients wouldn’t like a free flowing warm and muddy Colorado, because they would get dirty, and they would have a harder time keeping their beer cold.

  • MrJR

    It would be great for salmon. Prefer fillet and release over catch and release, nothing like knowing where you food came from, can’t wait for salmon to recover, they contribute to wildlife diets and that waste is then absorbed by vegetation, very important for Gaia.

  • Spencer

    Good to hear about the dam removals! As for the boating companies being salty about more white water? It seems pretty selfish to me that a company would rather run a dam controlled river for a consistent schedule, than run the river the way nature made it. I guide on the Animas River in CO, it is not damn controlled and we boat it until October! Controlled flow does not mean you wont be making trips in July. Granted the flow might not be the awesome high water run-off you had in May, but you will still be able to boat. Lots of rocks make good guides 🙂

  • David K.

    As in the article and comments there are some great potential benefits to dam removal in general, but let’s not forget the drawbacks. Flood control, summer flow stabilization, and loss of clean power. The dams on the Klamath are only a first small step. Those who advocate dam removal Will soon have their sight’s set on much larger dams, who’s removal would have some very negative consequences.

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