The Klamath River Renewal Project in California and Oregon stands to be one of the largest dam removal projects in the world. It aims to remove all dams on the river, which were placed between 1903 and 1967 by PacifiCorp. The removal of the lowest four dams was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2010 due to social and regulatory pressures from all angles—the federal government, tribes, anglers, and environmentalists. Damn removal, however, is tedious and there are many potential consequences. Deconstructing the dams is likely to cause a multitude of problems, one must weigh these risks against all of the current damages.

Dams can help solve water shortages, provide better irrigation for food production, and are energetically useful. Simultaneously, dams create negative environmental consequences. Ecologically, they change the entire system which extends to the people currently living there. Previously, dams were placed with only economic advantages in mind. Now, as environmental and social impacts are increasingly prioritized, the United States is faced with the decision of whether or not to try to restore some semblance of the historic waterway and the associated environmental assets. This is the latest case study in which we must weigh the consequences.

The dams along the Klamath were initially constructed for their economic advantages of maintaining water supplies and generating energy. “The project generates approximately 716 gigawatt-hours of emissions-free electricity on an annual basis,” which is enough energy for about 70,000 households according to Warren Cornwall for Science Magazine in 2023. Additionally, the Pacific Research Institute reports that this project “irrigates more than 200,000 acres to over 1,400 farms,” providing food and income to surrounding communities. These dams generate income for both farmers and the PacifiCorp energy company. Moreover, they are a ‘clean’ energy source; 6 of the 7 dams are hydroelectric (connected to the upper Klamath Lake). The reservoirs have also become popular recreation sites that PacifiCorp maintains, creating additional jobs and community sites. This lake is the biggest freshwater lake in Oregon, and the river is hundreds of miles long. These dams are pivotal for the surrounding community economies and lifestyles. There are good reasons for placing them if one solely considers the financial gain. Finally, they increase the food supply and provide hydroelectric components of the dams generating even more economic activity. 

From an environmental lens, dams can cause a lot of permanent changes to local wildlife and plants. This impact occurs upon installation and removal. The projected scar on the land—the “new” land that will be exposed—will be relatively large due to extended silt deposits, but it will also be good-quality soil. Experiments show that the fresh silty and soaked soil can be a fertile resource if humans plant nursery-started growths immediately after the water recedes as Craig HB published in the Social Sciences Research Network. However, if this is not done immediately and very specifically, that land will dry out and become barren soil. Thus, if done correctly this land could be revitalized.

Studies compiled by the Klamath River Renewal suggest that wildlife will benefit significantly from dam removal. First over 400 miles of spawning ground for many fish species including salmon will reopen, and the removal of reservoirs will decrease the water temperature decreasing the risk of fish diseases and eutrophication which has contributed to the current extinction risk for three local fish species. These algae are often toxic, which is dangerous for both wildlife and humans. 

Culturally, there are many historical uses of this river. Particularly “the 173-foot earth and rockfill dam associated with the Iron Gate Project forms the 944-acre Iron Gate Reservoir.” which is the largest dam, and the next to be removed. One important consideration is that this specific field used to be a major source of salmon for indigenous peoples in the area according to Rob Jourdand with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The political dynamics are not as straightforward as simply restoring fishing resources to indigenous peoples. Many of these agricultural areas were given to families of World War I and II veterans who have now used the land generationally. It is also difficult because the farmers along this river are already struggling to produce, given the droughts from the past few years. Finally, Congressional representatives Cliff Bentz (OR-02) and Doug LaMalfa (CA-01) raised the issue of eliminating firefighting resources, which are increasingly necessary given accumulating droughts and more fire load. 

This is a difficult tension, yet the Pacific Research Institute asserts that it is possible, given the right engineering precautions for water storage and distribution, to mitigate the impacts on local farmers, and restore the free flow of the river. This will hopefully restore the fish population which tribal leaders express as their primary concern. Unfortunately, these benefits to fish populations are not guaranteed, as Steven Greenhut exposes in Winning the Water War, previous dam removals have not resulted in increased fish populations, as water access isn’t the main problem. In cases like the Marin County CoHo water release, fish populations were harmed by the flow of silt. However, in the case of the Klamath River, where the water temperatures are also rising and toxic algae has taken over, this dam removal may be worth the risk.

This removal project will likely change perspectives on the land, especially if the land is properly revitalized. However, while these damages can be worked with, they will never truly be undone. Human replanting means a lot of guessing what the native species balance “should” be. Ethically, many argue that the dams should never have been placed, even if they provide clean energy, the land that did not belong to the U.S. government should not have been distributed. Now that we are in this situation, however, it requires thought and technological maneuvering to convalesce. In the name of economic benefits, the U.S. government has inadvertently caused environmental harms that are now difficult to recoup as we begin to prioritize other elements of a healthy society.