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Life or Death: Environmental concerns with dams in the Klamath River Basin

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Life or Death: Environmental concerns with dams in the Klamath River Basin. Prepared by:. Andrew Akerson. Background

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Life or Death: Environmental concerns with dams in the Klamath River Basin

Prepared by:

Andrew Akerson


The Klamath River travels 263 miles from Oregon to the Pacific Ocean. The total coverage area is approximately 12,100 square miles. Dam construction was planned as early as 1905 and the last dam was completed in 1967. Federal government’s Bureau of Reclamation organizes projects to control water flow and management. Two operations consider this region: the Klamath Water Project and the Central Valley Project. Reclamation’s projects are designated by water year type forecasted by Natural Resource Conservation Services (Figure 2). This planning is necessary to protect wildlife (low water levels result in warm temperatures and bacteria formation).

History of Dam Building in the Klamath Basin

Originating in Southern Oregon and extending through Northern California, the Klamath River Basin represents the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty. Unfortunately, once the focus is directed to the residing communities, it is clear that human impact is destroying the no longer plentiful resources. From the turn of the 20th century, construction of dams initiated within the watershed for flood control. This also served as a perfect storage device for irrigational purposes. More dams were built within the upper and lower basins, which obstructed the habitat for several endangered and threatened species. The scarcity of water has increased equally with the competition for it. Conflicts concerning water management have reached the interests for farmers, environmental organizations, wildlife refuge management, and recreational income. Equally important, the local, state, and tribal governments are negotiating to create a solution.

Chiloquin Dam(1914)

Diverts water to an irrigation canal. Upstream fish ladder no longer efficient and blocks access to two endangered suckers.

Estimate to remove:

$2.1 million

Water Year Type





April – October

Inflow Forecast

>500,400 acre-feet (af)

312,800 af – 500,400 af

185,000 af – 312,800 af

<185,000 af


Gerber Dam(1925)

Storage for irrigation. Reduces flow into Tule Lake and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Height: 84.5 feet

Length: 460 feet

Capacity: 94,300 acre-feet


Figure 2: Water year type designated from

Natural Resource Conservation Service’s inflow

forecast assigned by Bureau of Reclamation.

Link River Dam


Regulates flow from Upper Klamath Lake (principle source of water for Klamath Project). Allows upstream fish passage.

Height: 22 feet

Length: 435 feet

Capacity: 873,000 ac-ft

JC Boyle Dam(1958)

Generates 80 megawatts of hydropower. Allows upstream and downstream fish passage.

Capacity: 3,495 acre-feet

Estimate to remove:

$6.2 million

Keno Dam(1931)

Regulates water flows. Intended to produce power, but hydropower facilities never built. Allows upstream fish passage.

Height: 26 feet

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission operates 50-year licenses for the dams. Pacific Power and Light (PacifiCorp) operates many of these dams and their licenses are up for renewal this year. Of all facilities operated by PacifiCorp, the combined capacitance of 151 megawatts produced approximately 757,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year. This is enough to supply an estimated 69,500 homes. On top of this, many farmers are paid by the national government for crop production.




Copco 1 Dam(1918)

Blocks access to 75 miles of salmon and steelhead habitat. Copco 2(1925) is 0.25 miles south. Estimated to remove both: $10.4 million

Upper Klamath Basin

The Upper Klamath Basin covers 4,630 square miles, representing approximately 38% of the total watershed area. This portion only accounts for 12% of the total basin’s water runoff. Water management began in 1905 with the primary source of water deriving from Upper Klamath Lake, as well as precipitation and snowmelt. Link River Dam controls flows from Upper Klamath Lake, sending water down river. PacifiCorp may have to modify their licenses when they reapply this year, and Link River Dam is one that they operate. The agricultural usage in this area is about 60% higher than in the Lower Basin, and the land value is $283 million (2004).

Upper & Lower Klamath River Basin

Iron Gate Dam(1962)

Regulates flows from Copco dams. Generates 20 megawatts of hydropower. Creates 944 acre Iron Gate Reservoir. Height: 173 feet. Estimate to remove: $19.2 million



Lower Klamath Basin

The Lower Klamath Basin covers 7,470 square miles, representing approximately 62% of the watershed area. This portion is considerably more fortunate with water runoff, accounting for 88% of the total basin. The lowermost part of the Klamath River is included in this region, stretching nearly 200 miles. Much of the water flow into this basin is from four major tributaries: the Shasta, Scott, Salmon, and Trinity Rivers. The agricultural value in this basin is $114 million (2004).


Trinity Dam(1961)

Became known as the world’s highest embankment dam. Stores water from Trinity River for Trinity Powerpower.

Height: 538 feet

Length: 2,450 feet








The Major Issues

The dams serve as a direct threat to the wildlife whom have made the Klamath River Basin their habitat. A primary issue in the Upper Klamath Basin is how to avoid low water depths at which water temperatures increase, which eventually leads to poor living conditions for salmon and sucker fish. Unfortunately, the water inflow is not as high in the Upper Basin, so the flow needs to be regulated. The major concern for the Lower Klamath Basin is that most of the dams do not have pathways for which fish can migrate. The salmon have actually become extinct near the Iron Gate Dam and have been included as an Endangered Species. Wildlife, such as Bald Eagles, rely on the salmon as a primary food source, so their populations are lowering as well in this basin. Also, the local Native American tribes are impacted from this loss of fish. Fisherman are losing profits, as well. Due to the multiple environmental issues reflecting from the dams, immediate action is required. Fish Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NWFS) are regulating refuge areas in efforts to protect the threatened wildlife. Requests and complaints to remove the dams are yet to be answered. Research has indicated that either choice to keep a dam and suffer consequences or to destroy it will result in a loss of millions of dollars. The budget estimated to remove four major dams (Copco 1&2, Iron Gate, and JC Boyle) would reach roughly $40 million, and this has not been inclueded in the final budget agenda. Another issue is in relation to recreational activities. The dams create lakes for tourists and locals to participate in outdoor water sports and camping activities, which in return raises the revenue for the communities. If the dams are, a major source of income is also removed. Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid all the problems within the Upper and Lower Klamath River Basin. Negotiations have been initiated and the end result may very well be the loss of at least a few dams in order to protect the wildlife, which is the highest priority.


Figure 1: This map represents the Upper and Lower

Klamath River Basins with the main river channels, dams,

and lakes. Dams Represented: (A) Chiloquin, (B) Link River,

(C) Gerber, (D) Keno, (E) JC Boyle, (F) Copco 1&2, (G) Iron

Gate, and (H) Trinity.

References: Klamath River Basin Issues and Activities: An Overview. Kyna Powers. CRS Report for Congress, September 22, 2005. “Dammed to Extinction.” 04/27/2006. “Klamath River Hydroelectric Project.” Klamath Basin Tribal Water Quality Work Group. 04/27/2006. “Dam Application Has No Salmon Plan.” CNN International. 04/27/2006. “Klamath Project California and Oregon.” Dams, Projects & Powerplants, Bureau of Reclamation.