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The Klamath River Needs More Than Dam Removal

The much-celebrated agreement to remove dams along the Klamath River has been hailed as a win for fish, but the river ecosystem needs more than just dam removal. Increased water flows are also paramount.

Written by Konrad Fisher Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Klamath dams
Iron Gate Dam spans the Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif. Officials from Oregon, California and the Obama administration are preparing to sign an agreement pledging to seek permission to tear down four hydroelectric dams that are blamed for killing fish and blocking their migration.Jeff Barnard, AP

At the signing ceremony for a historic Klamath River dam removal agreement last month, Governor Brown pointed out that we are starting to “get it right after so many years of getting it wrong.” He was correct. Dam removal is the single most important step we can take to restore the Klamath River. But to truly get it right, we must also increase water flows in the Klamath River.

Unfortunately, Klamath River water users are being led to believe that dam removal will allow them to take even more water from an already over-allocated river.

It’s a story we know too well. Hard-working farmers and ranchers have built their livelihood upon commitments by federal and state water managers, but the water managers have allocated more water than the river can afford.

An algae bloom in the reservoir behind Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif. (Jeff Barnard, AP)

An algae bloom in the reservoir behind Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif. (Jeff Barnard, AP)

Low water flows kill Klamath River salmon by increasing water temperatures, decreasing oxygen levels and allowing disease to spread. During recent summers, federal water managers have relied on emergency water releases from a dam on the Trinity River (the Klamath River’s largest tributary) to prevent massive salmon die-offs in the Klamath River. This practice is being challenged by powerful irrigation interests in California’s central valley, which receives Trinity River water through a massive diversion project built in the 1960s.

Finding a balance between water for agriculture and rivers does not have to be painful or adversarial. In the upper Klamath River watershed, there is ample opportunity to link publicly funded conservation and infrastructure projects to increased river flows and to retire water rights held by farmers and ranchers who themselves want to retire.

While Klamath River dam removal is critical, it must be accompanied by increased river flows if we are to fully restore salmon populations, provide food security for Native American tribal members and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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