The Septuagenarian Speaks – published May 13, 2020, Siskiyou Daily News
It seems that everyone is on the bandwagon to yank out four dams along the Klamath River which have existed for decades and which do what they were designed to do, including flood control and clean hydroelectric power generation. Everyone is on the bandwagon, that is, except for the majority of those of us who actually live here in the California and Oregon counties where the dams are located; and except for many of us who are actually paying for it, i.e., the PacifiCorp electric utility ratepayers.
Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) wants the dams to go, of course, because that’s why the corporation was created. KRRC is a non-profit corporation created specifically to take ownership of the dams and demolish them. PacifiCorp, the dams’ current owner, surely doesn’t want to bear the awful responsibility of what might be a horrible outcome, so why not create a new shell corporation who can come in, do the deed, then disappear? KRRC has obviously spent a lot of money on publicity campaigns to convince us all how great it will be when the dams are gone. These campaigns are very well done and persuasive, but are they accurate?
The major selling point for dam removal is the claim that it will positively improve fish habitats. A well-produced video asks, “What will dam removal mean for fish habitats?” The video answers this provocative question with some equally provocative sound-bite answers: “The dams have blocked fish passage for over 100 years, cutting fish off from their spawning habitat!” “Populations are declining due to lack of habitat access!” “Dam removal opens over 400 stream miles of historic habitat!” You would have to be a real jerk to oppose dam removal, in light of these assertions, right? But there’s one small problem. Are they correct?
The answer is not a slam dunk by any means, but forgive me, I’m a skeptic. I don’t doubt that the river has problems, including sporadic salmon and steelhead runs, algae, dying fish, and poor water quality. But are these problems caused by the dams? And are they going to be solved by taking out the dams? There is historical and geological data suggesting that they aren’t and that they won’t.
The Siskiyou County Water Users organization, an opponent of dam removal, has provided documentation tending to demonstrate that anadromous fish didn’t travel significantly above the dams’ location before the dams were built. A portion of their case is founded on geological evidence of the existence of several natural reefs along the Klamath River. One of those, now covered by Copco Lake, was located upstream from the present site of Copco Dam #1. The once 130-foot-high reef caused the water to back up above it to form an ancient natural lake a mile wide at its widest part, called Lake Clammitte. The height of this reef over eons was eroded down to 26 feet. How high can a salmon jump? Studies have demonstrated that, with a ten-yard running (swimming?) start, a salmon can jump a maximum of twelve feet, making it highly unlikely that anadromous fish, at least at that time, could have made it to the “400 stream miles of historic habitat” that KRRC claims will be opened up if the dams are removed.
I personally believe that continuous natural changes over the ages created ever-changing conditions affecting how far upriver anadromous fish could travel, and that long before the dams were built, there were times when the fish couldn’t travel beyond the dams’ present location. This is borne out by accounts from many sources, such as reports from General John C. Fremont in 1846 and fur trader Peter Skene Ogden in 1827, images from turn-of-the-century photographs, information from archeologists, anthropologists, magazines, newspapers, government reports, and anecdotal accounts from explorers and Native Americans they interacted with.
But here’s the deal. Anyone who thinks that the river’s ills will miraculously go away once the dams are gone, is going to be sadly disappointed. Poor and sporadic salmon and steelhead runs, dying fish, poor water quality, and algae existed before the dams were there, and they will still exist after they are gone. Since at least 1850, the river quality hasn’t just been impacted by the dams (if at all), but also by a whole horde of other factors, such as hydraulic mining (no longer legal), overfishing in the Pacific Ocean, intensive water diversions, erosion caused by roads, climate change, logging, floods, agricultural activities, forest fires, and nutrients in the water caused naturally by the area’s volcanic origins, just to name a few.
The Klamath River reservoirs have become a part of Siskiyou County’s wonderfully diverse beauty and landscape, and are important to its recreation-based tourism, a mainstay of our struggling economy.
Tearing them down is a slap in the face to the people who live here, who are forced to pay the cost through electric utility rates and taxes, and who will bear the brunt of having a valuable recreational and fire suppression resource torn away by decisions made by people a long distance away. This is appalling. Let me provide an analogy. I’ll bet if today you took a poll of the residents of San Francisco, they would vote in favor of the removal of our dams. Does anyone disagree with me on that? It’s easy to impose your beliefs on others. But in 2012 San Franciscans, by a 77% majority, voted down a proposal to take the first steps toward restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley to its natural state by draining its reservoir and tearing down nearly-century-old O’Shaughnessy Dam. The construction of that dam, back in 1923, caused the flooding of a valley equal in grandeur to that of Yosemite Valley. San Franciscans overwhelmingly turned that dam removal proposal down. Why? Because Hetch Hetchy provides water to San Francisco. How do you think San Franciscans would have voted if the Hetch Hetchy water served Yreka, instead of San Francisco?