The Activist Success Story Behind the Biggest Dam Removal Deal In U.S. History
Due to decades of activism by a coalition of Indigenous groups, commercial fishers, concerned citizens and environmentalists, Oregon and California state governments committed to removing four dams along the Klamath River.
“The Klamath River is the center of our traditions, culture and community, and has always been the centerpiece of our way of life,” said Frankie Myers, vice-chairperson for the Yurok Tribe in 202o. “We are connected to the salmon in a really deep way, and there is a belief that their existence is our existence.”
The Yurok people have lived in the 15,700 square miles Klamath River Basin, in what is now called Northern California, for millennia. They are among the key organizers in a coalition of Indigenous groups, environmentalists, concerned citizens and commercial fishers that joined forces in a decades-long movement to Un-dam the Klamath.
The Klamath was once home to the third-largest upstream salmon migrations (or runs) in the United States. Due in large part to the eight dams that were built along the river between the early 1900s and 1962, in what was called the Klamath Project, fish populations drastically decreased. In particular spring-run Chinook salmon, which historically showed up in the hundreds of thousands, were on the brink of extinction, with less than 700 fish counted in their 2019 run. After it was discovered that Spring Chinook are a genetically unique species of salmon, an effort was launched to designate the fish “as a distinct population and protected under the [U.S.] Endangered Species Act,” as detailed in a National Geographic article published in 2020.
After years of organizing on the part of tribes, environmental groups and other local activists, the states of California and Oregon announced a historic new agreement on November 17, 2020 to move forward with the removal of the four dams blocking the lower Klamath River. The agreement was between the Yurok and Karuk tribes, as well the electric utility PacifiCorp, original owner of the four dams, all of which are hydroelectric facilities built without fish passage.
Over the years the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has played a key role in making dam removal a viable reality. In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and federal wildlife agencies reinitiated an ongoing process of ESA consultation for the Klamath Project. Because the dams were built without fish passage, they do not comply with the ESA’s requirements, and retrofitting them to comply with the act would not be cost-effective for the utility corporation.
In 2010, PacifiCorp and other stakeholders initially created and signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which together pave a path for removal of the four dams along the lower Klamath River. In 2016, all parties had reached an agreement over dam removal, but that agreement was stalled in July due to a federal regulatory decision. Under the 2020 agreement, however, the states of Oregon and California would take over ownership of the dams during the removal process. In 2022, ownership of the dams was passed to an entity called the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), created by multiple stakeholders to assume ownership of the dams for the purposes of the removal process.
The new dam removal plan hinged on approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy consultant who worked on the Klamath Dam removal effort since 2003, said in 2020 he was confident the current agreement would hold, and dam removal would be underway within a year or two. In November 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave its final approval for a plan to remove the four dams. As of December 2022, the dams were scheduled to be removed beginning in 2023.
While in 2020 more than 1,700 dams had been removed in the United States since the 1980s (90 of them in 2019), the removal of the four Klamath River dams would be the largest dam removal effort, as well as the largest salmon restoration project, in U.S. history.
As detailed in a BBC article by Alexander Matthews, the dam removal and restoration efforts aim to restore 400 stream-miles of habitat for salmon, steelhead trout and other migratory fish. Michael Belchik, the Yurok tribe’s senior fisheries biologist, said in the BBC article that opening up spawning grounds that were previously inaccessible due to the dams will increase genetic diversity and reduce crowding for fish. He also told BBC that elevated water temperatures—which are a major cause of fish declines—will be reduced as the restoration effort reconnects cold-water springs and tributaries to the larger Klamath River, improving water quality and reducing the risk of toxic algae blooms which have been a major cause for concern along the river. And, cooler water temperatures will help the fish to be resilient in the face of climate change, and free-flowing sediment will help to reduce the habitats for bristle worms that are secondary hosts for C Shasta parasites, which kill salmon, as Belchik explains in the BBC article.
The BBC article also quotes Yurok member Amy Cordalis, according to who the Klamath dam removal and restoration project will be a model for how to approach sustainable river restoration worldwide:
“I think the approach of working together with the company, with states, with tribes, with environmentalists, to reach an agreement that allows these dams to be removed for the tribes and for American citizens to benefit from the restoration of this river in a way that costs less money than it would be to relicense [the dams] – that’s really a model of how you might approach sustainable river restoration across the world,” she said.
Tucker, who was working on the Klamath dam removal effort since 2003, said a unique set of factors make the restoration of the Klamath River uniquely viable.
“From a biodiversity perspective [the Klamath Basin] is an incredibly valuable place. And, it’s truly restorable in a way that some places aren’t. That’s to say that there are not that many people in the Klamath Basin, there are no real big cities [located there], most of the land is public land, and then you have these permanent stewards of the region that are the tribes, and for those reasons, I think the Klamath has a great chance to really being protected, preserved, restored.”
Guardians of the River
The environmental conservation organization American Rivers, which was involved with the Klamath dam removal effort for years, released the short film “Guardians of the River,”in 2020, produced by Swiftwater Films. It follows Yurok and Karuk people who live and fish in the Klamath Basin. The 15-minute film details the river’s dwindling health over the last several decades, the toll this has taken on the people who have called the river home for millennia, and their efforts toward renewed food sovereignty.
Dania Rose Colegrove, a member of the Klamath Justice Coalition and Hoopa Tribal member points out in the film that the state of California advises against drinking and swimming in the Klamath River due to the water’s toxicity levels. She says organizing for dam removal is not a choice and adds the 2002 fish kill was the “saddest part” of her life, in the film.
Talking about the obligation of her people to the river in the film, Colegrove says “It’s not because we want to, it’s because we have to... It’s an obligation for us to take care of this place, and take care of us.”
Samuel Gensaw, a 26-year-old traditional Yurok fisherman, narrates much of the film. In the film’s opening scene, Gensaw says his “grandpa thought he’d never see the day when he’d catch less than 50 fish when he went fishing.” Now, even with three teams, tribal fisher people are lucky to catch seven.
“Back in the day you did this all year round; you caught fish in the spring, there’s fish in the fall and there’s fish in the summer,” he says in the film. “Nowadays it’s just one time a year that we get a good fish run, and it’s really sad because this fish run is so small there’s not going to be enough fish pulled out of this river to give every tribal member one fish… Without these salmon our way of life is impossible.”
Gensaw is the founder and director of the Ancestral Guard, which is a community organizing network geared toward engaging youth with Yurok cultural values and ancestral knowledge. He has worked as an activist since he was a child, beginning in sixth grade after the local school district shut down the reservation school, forcing native students to travel 45 minutes on a crowded bus to Crescent city for school, where they endured racism from students and teachers. This situation garnered support from the ACLU.
“The ACLU came through and totally tore up that whole system to make the county act right when it comes to the education of Indigenous people,” he said in 2020. “They’re still fighting that battle, but it was really empowering to see that and I realized you can actually make a change.”
Gensaw began homeschooling, which provided the chance to connect with his grandmothers and tribal elders. By 10th grade, Gensaw became involved with the Undam the Klamath campaign after meeting Craig Tucker. Over the years he became increasingly interested in getting youth involved with preserving Yurok traditions, and helping them develop connections to the “old school rules” of being on the river and how to “think right” when fishing.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers and luckily I’ve had a lot of elders [who are my] mentors like Archie Thompson, who was one of the last fluent speakers of our [Yurok] language,” he said.
The formation of the Ancestral Guard began with teaching youth about traditional fishing, from boating to treating the fish to making sure elders were fed.
“We did that for about three years until the salmon run population started dwindling,” he said, which was around 2010. “Then we started focusing on activism, asking ‘What can we really do to protect this river?’”
This led to getting more native youth involved with the Undam the Klamath campaign, among other movements to protect the river’s ecosystem as well as Indigenous rights to access the river.
“We fight so hard because we want a whole generation to grow up on a dam-free river,” he says. “We want them to not have to go through the same struggles and traumas that we have had, growing up on a sick river. It takes a lot out of you when you’re taught this place will take care of you for the rest of your life, and then all of a sudden it’s sick. Now it needs you to take care of it. [The river] is like a family member that we have, and the connection to the river is more than a connection. It’s a keystone piece of our existence.”
Gensaw said he never wanted to be an activist but has had to organize out of necessity.
“I never wanted to be involved in this process,” he says. “All I want to do is fish and feed my family. And that’s the same mentality of every fisherman out there. We just want to be able to fish or be able to provide for our families. And we want all the healthy opportunities that come along with living with a healthy river.”
Meyers, vice-chair of the Yurok, has been at the forefront of the effort organizing for dam removal for two decades. He pointed out in 2020 that while the dams have destroyed aspects of the Indigenous way of life—contributing to gravely depleted fish populations and making it unsafe to bathe, drink and swim in a river that has been home since time immemorial—the Yurok haven’t even benefited from the electricity generated by the dams.
“For 50 years, the reservations here didn’t have electricity,” he said. “For the vast majority of the time the dams have been destroying our river and our way of life, but we haven’t even been able to get the luxury of electricity.”
He said his own parents, living in a village along the river basin, just got electricity about five years prior, only because the tribe installed it.
Organizing ‘Undam the Klamath’
In 2002, a devastating event took place on the Klamath, known as the fish kill. Tens of thousands of dead salmon, steelhead and other migratory fish floated on the water. They were killed upon returning to the river to spawn, by disease related to high water temperatures that were likely caused by the culmination of steady habitat degradation created by the dams, water pulled from the river for upstream irrigation of farms and ranches during a drought year, timber sales along stream banks and groundwater withdrawals. The official estimate of mortality by the California Department of Fish and Game was around 34,000 fish, however, they have since reported that that number may have been significantly underestimated, and some estimates are upwards of 70,000.
Meyers said in 2020 that the fish kill took almost 80,000 of the 2002 fall salmon run—and the event likely could have been avoided had the regulators listened to the tribe.
“In 2001 we’d made a case to the Bureau of Reclamation about the importance of river flows to the river, and the importance of adequate flows to species viability,” he said. The bureau at first followed the tribe’s recommendations, releasing water back into the river, but the move caused economic distress for irrigators upstream. In 2002, the Bureau of Reclamation’s policy swung in the opposite direction.
“They augmented our river flows to beyond what we had told them would be catastrophic, and it was catastrophic in that year .”
The fish kill was a call to action for many Indigenous groups in the Klamath Basin.
“It really became clear that we were never going to be able to get our salmon to return [to] any subsistent amount, as long as the dams were [there],” he said. “They cause too many negative impacts to water quality and there is no other way to mitigate that.”
Meyers noted that Indigenous people are not new to activism and organizing, as they’ve had to fight for centuries for most of the rights they have today.
“We had the fish wars in the ’60s and ’70s; we had the Red Cap War in the 1850s,” he said. “We’ve always been on the river and we’ve always fought for our way of life, we’ve always fought for our salmon and our ability to catch salmon, but it wasn’t until the 2002 fish kill that it became very, very apparent to us that dam removals would have to be necessary for us to continue our way of life. So we began the Undam the Klamath campaign soon after that.”
“We’ve been neighbors with Karuk and Hoopa people for millennia, since time immemorial, so there is some really deep-seated friction between the tribes that play out in all kinds of ways,” he said. “There was this animosity at times between the tribes, but that all was put aside after the fish kill. It was collectively decided… that our past fighting had to be put aside. Whatever problems we had with each other and our governments had to be put aside. This was about our survival as a species here on earth. That night at the river bar, it was all tribal people from the Klamath Basin, and regardless of tribal affiliation, we all started working together because we knew we were in a dire situation. We saw the terrible fish kill together.”
Meyers said the groups also realized the fight ahead would be a long one that would require a systematic shift involving massive hurdles, involving huge corporations and the overarching mentality of resource extraction and the industrial revolution.
“We knew this was going to take more than just consultation, this was going to take more than just government to government negotiations,” he said. “We knew the fight ahead of us was massive, but it was a decision that was made collectively, for the benefit of future generations. This was the fight we had to take up.”
Environmental groups as well as fisheries joined the effort, and over time the coalition-built momentum.
“The years after that really saw a collection of folks within the basin coming together and wanting to work on the solution for all of the communities in the basin,” Meyers said.
In 2006 PacifiCorp’s 50-year license to operate the dams expired, and since then the company has relied on annual licenses. Around 2008, the coalition began to restructure its efforts. They raised funds to hire a reputable firm to do a cost-benefit analysis of dam removal, with the aim to expand the narrative around dam removal from being centered solely on the tribes toward focusing on the financial, fiduciary responsibility of the corporation that owned the dams.
“We changed the message and we fine-tuned it,” Meyers said. “One of the big turning points for the campaign is when [the cost-benefit analysis] came out and we were actually able to show the corporation that at that point [dam removal] was in their financial interest. It sparked a whole other tone for the campaign, where this was not just about tribes, but now this was about the financial and the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation to make sure that their shareholders are getting their best possible return.”
As the Undam the Klamath coalition was able to push the conversation to include a financial and corporate structure debate, Meyers said they began to solidify partnerships and support from within the state governments of California and Oregon.
It has indeed been a long fight. In 2010, Klamath Basin stakeholders, including farmers from the upper basin and fishers from the lower basin, signed two agreements (KBRA and KHSA). In 2014, stakeholders signed the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement (UKBCA). Members of the California and Oregon delegations introduced legislation to Congress hoping to advance the Klamath agreements, but the 2015 U.S. Congress closed without authorizing them. The involved parties amended the KHSA and the 2016 Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement was created. After a federal regulatory decision dismantled that agreement, the states of Oregon and California resolved to make dam removal happen, agreeing to take on liability for the removal process in what is the current dam removal agreement.
“Hats off to Oregon and California for showing some true leadership at a governmental level,” Meyers said.
Tucker said in 2020 that a coalescence of factors was necessary in order for this campaign to succeed.
“The activism piece is my favorite piece, and it’s the most exciting, sexy piece, but it only works coupled with legal strategy and good science and good policy advocacy,” he said. “We had all of that together. I would make the case that you don’t win by grassroots alone; you don’t win by direct action alone. You have to have these other pieces running in parallel. And that’s something we’ve had, and we’ve managed that because, for one, the tribes have the capacity to bring all of those pieces to the table. And we [have been] very good at coalition-building.”
Tucker said that the partnership between the tribes with commercial salmon fishers and environmental groups has been key.
“That sort of enviro- tribal-labor trinity was one of the winning elements of the campaign,” he said. Tucker notes that it wasn’t so long ago that Indians and commercial fishers were engaged in gunfights along the Klamath over fishing rights at the mouth of the Klamath.
“Commercial salmon fishers were very powerful allies in this battle,” he said. “I was worried that it would be hard to get commercial salmon, fishers, and Indians to work together well but it worked out wonderfully.”
He said the environmental groups involved in the Klamath effort, like American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and California Trout, contributed their prior experience in dam removal as well as nationwide advocacy capabilities.
“These are groups that have a lot of experience removing dams all over the country,” he said. “They brought a lot of that FERC expertise to the table, and helped us raise money. And they have nationwide memberships that we could activate to write letters and petitions.”
Another ingredient in the recipe that has made the Klamath effort successful, he said, is strong leadership.
“We just had some individuals, Frankie Myers being one of them, whose leadership skills and charisma were able to develop meaningful relationships between individuals leading these organizations, and the different constituencies. You have to have some really capable leaders to make stuff happen, and we’ve been blessed with very capable leaders.”
Meyers said the Klamath dam removal agreement marks a significant shift in policy and said the tribes alone could not have brought it about.
“I don’t think any one group or agency has the capacity to get something like this done,” he said. “It really did take a collaborative effort, working with some strategic partners in the NGO world, partners in the environmental conservation world, and also having really strong partners at the state level.”