Photo courtesy of Oregon Public Broadcasting | Copco 2, built in 1925, sits astride Copco Lake.

Indigenous activism brings down Klamath dams


Harrison Smith

The Klamath salmon have been granted a reprieve. After decades of activism by Indigenous people, four of the six dams on the Klamath are finally coming down. Pacificorp, corporate owner of the dams slated for removal, was denied a renewal of their operating license by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in November of last year.

The Klamath Basin is one of the largest watersheds in the continental United States. Melting snow in Oregon’s Cascade Range mixes with runoff from Crater Lake, frigid waters flowing south and west to fill Klamath Lake. In past years, Klamath Lake’s cold, high-nutrient water tumbled to the coast, providing habitat for dozens of salmonid species.  

Until the dams were built. 

“They haven’t had any salmon in over 100 years,” said Regina Chichizola, director of Save California Salmon. “The Karuk Tribe no longer has spring salmon even for their spring salmon ceremonies.” 

Salmonid populations in the Klamath Basin have seen a staggering 95% decline since Copco 1 was built in 1918 and those numbers only continued to fall as the basin was strangled by the next three dams. 400 miles of river habitat have been either partially or completely blocked to fish passage, and Klamath salmonids were on the path to extinction. 

“Having that acknowledgement is a really big deal, because it’s not just acknowledging that this is a bad deal the river’s been given, but also us as well,” said Brook Thompson, restoration engineer for the Yurok tribe. “And that our voice does matter. Sometimes when you protest, in activism work, it feels like nothing’s gonna change and no one is hearing you, and that’s the case; it feels like we were finally heard.”

 Thompson is a descendent of both Yurok and Karuk tribes, and a Ph.D. student. 

There are currently four dams on the Klamath river. Copco 2 (1925) is slated for removal this year, followed by Copco 1 (1918), J.C. Boyle (1958), and Iron Gate (1964).  

Photo courtesy of Regina Chichizola | Molli and son Chas smoke salmon over a firepit.

Negative impacts

The negative effects of the Klamath dams are numerous and interconnected. By slowing down the river, the dams allow the water to heat up in the sun. 

“With that warm water, you get less dissolved oxygen, which the fish need to breathe,” said Thompson. “You get increased blue green algae blooms, which when they die, they take up dissolved oxygen, which, again, means less dissolved oxygen for the fish.” 

The dams also cause the river to cut into the riverbed, by locking its flow into a narrow channel and preventing it from connecting to the wider floodplain.

On September 19th, 2002, dead Chinook salmon began washing up on the banks of the Klamath. During the next week, over 60,000 adult Chinook would wash up on the banks of the river like a rotting carpet.

“It was the day after one of the ceremonies,” said Thompson, who was present at the catastrophe as a child. “I was the same size as the salmon I saw the bodies of on the shore.” 

This can be directly linked to the dams’ effects on the Klamath. The closely-packed conditions of the migrating Chinook and high water temperatures were a perfect environment for parasite Ichthyopthirius multifilis and bacteria Flavobacter columnare, which together ravaged the salmon population. Low flow from Iron Gate dam, due to irrigation runoff, was found to be a primary cause in the Fish Kill. 

Indigenous sovereignty 

The Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, and Klamath tribes have been fighting for their rights to river governance and access for over a century. 

“We’re fighting for our cultural sovereignty, making sure that we’re upholding our responsibility as human beings to make sure that we’re making this world a livable space for not just humans,” said Charley Reed, education director for Save California Salmon and descendent of the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa tribes. 

Before colonization, Indigenous people depended on the Klamath as a primary source of food, with an average salmon intake of 450 pounds of fish per person per year. Today, that number has dropped to under a pound. 


In 1973, Yurok community leader ‘Aawokw Raymond Mattz took the issue of Yurok fishing rights to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. However, state and federal agencies continued to crack down on Indigenous fishing well into the 1970s. This sparked a period of protest now called the Fish Wars. Anti-dam protests continued sporadically for decades, but gained renewed purpose after the 2002 Fish Kill, according to Reed.

“To get the U.S. to do things you have to sue them,” Thompson said. “That’s actually how we got the fishing rights back from my neighbor when I was a kid.”

In the 2000s, dam protesters spent one week of every month traveling to protest. Reed’s father was deeply involved with the movement for decades. Protest efforts in the wake of the Fish Kill led to the founding of Save California Salmon, a nonprofit organization founded, operated, and led by Indigenous people. SCS along with other groups focused the energies of the Klamath Tribal communities onto the dams. In 2004, dam owner Pacificorp filed to relicense the four dams on the Klamath. This provided an initial objective for the activists—stop the relicensing. 

The activists took a multi-pronged approach to the campaign for the dams’ removal. They applied public pressure on lawmakers and dam owners, as well as working with state and federal officials. 

Activists traveled to Scotland in 2004 to demonstrate against the parent company of Pacificorp, Scottish Power, during a shareholders meeting. In 2005, Scottish Power sold Pacificorp to Berkshire Hathaway and activists continued the pressure.

“2006 or 2007 was the first year we went to the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meetings,” Chichizola said. “And even before that, we went to Pacificorp headquarters in Portland…. A big part of it was the community pressure for sure. Every step of the way, the community was there.”

In response to the continued activism, the Berkshire Hathaway board changed the rules of their Q&A sessions in 2008 to forbid questions about the Klamath dams. 

Activists succeeded in lobbying the California and Oregon governments to require extensive renovations of the dams before they could be relicensed — a major victory. The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA) between the states would have demolished the dams years ago and reallocated water for irrigation. It was killed in the house by republican congressmen Doug Lamalfa and Greg Walden. 

In 2016, parts of the KBRA were salvaged to create the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. The KHSA was passed without congressional approval, but its passage was followed by another period of bureaucratic snarls that were only resolved last year. After relentless pressure from all sides, it proved far more expensive for Pacificorp to relicense the dams than to remove them. 

In November of 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied Pacificorp’s license to operate its Klamath River dams, and the dams came under the jurisdiction of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC). FERC credited Tribal activism for the government’s decision to decline Pacificorp’s license renewal. 

Photo courtesy of Regina Chichizola | A pair of stalwart activists demonstrate in Scotland, 2005.

Demolition and restoration

Copco 2 is scheduled to be demolished this year, but much restoration work remains to be done before the basin is whole again.

Extensive preparation must be completed on more than 400 miles of river that have been cut off from the greater watershed for the better part of a century, mostly on the lower river. The KRRC was created to carry out the restoration work. 

“We’ve been collecting seeds for the last few years and then we’re growing plants,” Thompson said. “These native plant species will have a chance to take hold before invasives come in.” 

Work must also be done to reconnect the river to the system of ponds and tributaries which fed it historically. All this will eventually restore habitat and favorable conditions for salmonids, according to Thompson.

“All that habitat needs to be restored and that’s going to be creating more woodfill, creating different types of flow, so [salmon] can chill out in slower ponds or move up faster streams and try to get different types of food,” said Thompson.

The Elwha Dam removal in Washington could give some insight into the Klamath’s future. 

“As soon as a year after the Elwha dam removal, which happened just over 10 years ago, you saw salmon that were returning above the dam to breed, which is kind of crazy, because they haven’t been going there for generations,” Thompson said.

For Reed, the victory felt bittersweet. It comes after many long decades of teeth-pulling effort, marked by the passage of loved ones and community members — stymied by corporate and governmental roadblocks.

 “There’s so many people who weren’t there that day that had passed on, but were very much a part of that effort in those early years,” Reed said. “If it wasn’t for them, it’d be really hard to imagine how we would have kept that momentum going, how we would have kept up the fight. It’s very much intergenerational.” 

Reed plans to teach his daughter to fish when she’s old enough. By then, restoration efforts will be well underway.

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