Historic Klamath River Dam Removal Marks a New Era in Ecological Restoration

The US has kicked off its biggest-ever dam removal work to heal the environment. Mostly happening in California, the goal is to tear down dams that have messed up the river’s nature and hurt fish numbers. By bringing back the river’s old rhythm, this big move is good news for both the land around it and the critters that need it.

The Decision to Dismantle

We decided to get rid of the dams because we saw they were messing up how fish move around and making the water dirty. Taking them down is a mix of smashing them up with machines and setting off careful explosions. This is part of a bigger push to look after nature and keep things going for the future. It’s super important to save all different kinds of life and keep the environment healthy.

Restoring the Natural Ecosystem

The project’s centerpiece is the removal of the Iron Gate and two other reservoirs on the Klamath River, leading to the dismantling of three additional hydroelectric dams as part of the Lower Klamath Project in Northern California and Southern Oregon. These dams have blocked salmon, steelhead, and Pacific lamprey from reaching their habitats, contributing to downstream water quality deterioration. Once the third-largest salmon producer on the West Coast, the Klamath River has seen its salmon populations dwindle dramatically.

Impact on Salmon Population and Beyond

  • Klamath River Dam Removal: The largest of its kind in US history, this project plans to eliminate four of the six dams by year-end.
  • Milestone Achieved: A significant milestone was the free flow of water behind three of the dams for the first time in a century.
  • Beneficial Outcomes: Native American tribes and environmentalists have applauded the removal, which aims to reverse the damage inflicted on the salmon population. A 2022 study indicated that 90% of juvenile salmon were diseased due to low river flow, a condition set to improve post-dam removal.
  • American Rivers’ Ambition: The advocacy group aims to remove 30,000 US dams by 2050, with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 supporting the removal of at least 54 dams.

Strategic Implementation of the Project

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) initiated the drawdown process by opening the Iron Gate Dam’s low-level outlet tunnel. The reservoirs’ water levels will be controlled and reduced, with an expected complete drainage by the end of February. This phase involves the removal of an estimated 17 to 20 million cubic yards of sediment, deemed non-toxic by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Methodical Approach and Community Involvement

KRRC’s strategy differed from traditional dam removal methods, focusing on precise control of water volumes to minimize downstream impacts. The initial drawdown period was carefully chosen to avoid disturbing threatened and endangered species, with an improvement in water quality anticipated by March. The deconstruction of the dams is scheduled to begin in mid-2024, with completion expected by fall.

Broader Implications and Future Steps

  • KRRC’s Role: Formed in 2016, KRRC is a pivotal player in this project. Comprising various stakeholders, including states, local governments, Tribal nations, and conservation groups, KRRC is responsible for overseeing the dam removals.
  • Long-Term Vision: The project is part of a broader goal to rejuvenate the Klamath River, aiming to benefit all communities in the Klamath Basin. It reflects a growing recognition of the need to balance human infrastructure with natural ecosystems.

Addressing Ecological Concerns

This project shows how we’re starting to care more about the environment and putting nature’s well-being before old ways of building stuff. Taking down the dam is meant to help bring back the salmon, and it’s also paving the way for how we fix up nature in other places around the country.


The Klamath River dam removal is a big deal for the environment. It’s not only about getting rid of old dams, but it’s also about starting a new chapter where we take better care of nature. This project shows we’re serious about fixing mistakes from before and making sure that going forward; we’re looking out for both nature and people’s needs. For more information on this historic project and its implications, visit the Klamath River Renewal Corporation website.

Image Source: Patrick McCully from Berkeley, United StatesCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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