Yurok Tribe Celebrates the Return of Salmon to the Klamath Basin
As dismantling of the Iron Gate dam resulted in the release of pent-up boulders, tons of sediment and a massive surge of water, the Yurok Tribe celebrated the return of salmon to the Klamath Basin. Tribal member Jeff Mitchell, who was present, later posted an emotional statement on Instagram. He said the river talked to him as it rushed free and that the sound of the water was one of joy, happiness and hope.
The drawdown of Iron Gate and two other Klamath River reservoirs paves the way for removal of three more hydroelectric dams in southern Oregon and Northern California. The reservoirs blocked salmon and other fish life from spawning grounds for decades. Klamath River’s salmon production was hard-hit and quickly lost its status as the West Coast’s third-largest producer.
Massive Klamath Dam Removal Project Begins
The tribal people of the Klamath Valley are celebrating the return of free-flowing water into the basin after fighting for its release since 2002. The lowering of dam reservoirs began last week in the largest dam removal project in U.S. history.
A detonation at the base of a bypass tunnel of the Iron Gate dam created a 3-foot opening from what was previously a mere crack. The enlarged gateway allowed pent-up sediment and rocks to spew out as the water surged forward into the basin. The bypass tunnel has been reinforced to handle the force of the huge volume of water. Between five to seven million cubic yards of sediment is expected to be released over the next six weeks.
A witness to the first big surge of water was Amy Cordalis, a Yurok Tribe member and attorney who threw her weight behind the campaign to have the dam removed. She described the event as life-changing for the Yurok people who will now have a brighter future because of the return of the salmon.
The $500,000 million cost for the removal of the four dams will allow the free flow of Klamath River water over hundreds of miles to the sea through south Oregon and north California. The dams are owned by PacificCorp who agreed to the removal program.
The Return of the Salmon
Members of the Karuk Tribe are overjoyed at the return of the salmon. Tribal Councilor Aaron “Troy” Hockaday was seen watching the salmon returning to their spawning grounds and expressed his hopes for a bright future. Until now, the four dams have blocked their passage to their historic habitat.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision to remove the four dams will see the return of salmon to a 400-mile stretch of the Klamath River’s spawning habitats that have been blocked to them for so many years.
The course of the Klamath River is from south-central Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake, crossing over the California state line before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.
Tearing down the Pacific Corps’ four dams will increase the salmon population and improve the quality of river water to the region by removing agricultural runoff pollution and toxic algae bacterial growth that can kill off fish life. Irrigation water for ranchers and farmers in the Klamath Basin was cut off earlier this year to safeguard endangered salmon and sucker fish in Klamath Lake.
Anything water-related is controversial to residents of the drought-stricken Klamath Valley Basin. Opponents say that reservoirs are integral to the local communities that rely on the tax revenue provided. They also point out that recreational opportunities will be lost, while waterfront property values will suffer negative impacts.
During a severe drought in 2001, water supplies for farmlands in the upper Klamath Basin were cut off by federal officials. The move was spurred when scientists discovered that water diverted for irrigation posed a serious threat to protected fish life and violated the Endangered Species Act.
Farmers and their families gathered en masse to form a 10,000-strong human bucket chain. They clashed with authorities and forced them to reopen the dam gates. A year later, the U.S. government had to again decide whether to send water to the farmlands or to save the endangered salmon and sucker fish. At that time, Vice President Dick Cheney intervened and persuaded federal agencies to reverse their earlier decision and to allow the water to feed into ranches and farmlands.
The decision to reroute the water to farms and ranches resulted in the death of thousands of salmon whose bodies floated in the lower Klamath River. This travesty was blamed on the administration by the people of the Klamath Valley.
Klamath River, also referred to as an upside-down river, flows through hugely diverse areas. Its breathtaking habitats are high arid deserts to rugged mountain ranges and coastal rainforests before emptying into the Pacific Ocean.
In spring and fall, the Klamath’s salmon runs were among the largest in the U.S. Chinook, coho, lamprey, steelhead and sturgeon teemed in the waters. It is said that the run of fish was so abundant that the ancestors of the indigenous people of the region could repeatedly fill their nets. They could also feed their families with 450 pounds of fish per head each year.
The four Klamath River dams owned by the PacificCorp are J.C. Boyle in Oregon and Copco 1, Copco 2 and Iron Gate in California. An ever-increasing number of salmon was blocked from returning to their spawning habitats as each dam was constructed. This also led to a disruption of natural nutrients flowing up and down the river.
Salmon runs have suffered a steep decline, forcing the indigenous people of Klamath Valley to adopt a radically changed diet. An academic study found that a large number of the Karuk Tribe had not eaten Chinook from as far back as 1970. Diabetes became prevalent among tribal members when important nutritional staples found in lamprey and sturgeon also became unavailable.
The authors of the study labeled the Klamath River dams as more responsible for a significant human rights violation than any other dams built in the United States.