Sun shines on Klamath River


By Steve Lundeberg, OSU news writer

CORVALLIS, Ore. – With $870,000 from Oregon Sea Grant, researchers at Oregon State University will embark in July on a 3½-year partnership with the Yurok Tribe to study what the connections between river quality, water use and the aquatic food web may look like after four Klamath River dams are dismantled.

“In the end we’ll have new ecological models, new cultural models and new decision models for understanding the Klamath system,” said OSU’s Desiree Tullos, a professor of water resource engineering and the project’s leader. “We can put all three together and conduct simulations: How would recreation change or how would opportunities for the tribes in the area change if we managed for water quality a certain way?”

A big part of the research focuses on Western science around water quality, Tullos said, but another big piece involves "examining new ways of making decisions where all voices can be represented and where the stakes are high.”

In addition to the Yurok Tribe, Tullos and her collaborators will work with whitewater recreation outfitters, the commercial and charter fishing industries, conservation organizations, farmers and ranchers. 

“By working with the tribe and stakeholders in the basin, we’ll capture a really comprehensive set of perspectives,” Tullos said. “And the more perspectives we have, the better decisions we’ll make.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission along with the utility PacifiCorp and the states of California and Oregon are poised to sign off on the removal of the lower four dams on the Klamath River: the J.C.  Boyle Dam in Oregon and the Copco 1, Copco 2 and Iron Gate dams in California.

The decommissioning effort, among whose goals are improving water quality and fish habitat, includes restoration of 2,000 acres currently inundated by the hydroelectric dams, which were built between 1918 and 1962 and provide power through PacifiCorp. Dam removal work is likely to begin in a year. 

From its source, Upper Klamath Lake, the Klamath River flows about 260 miles southwest to the Pacific Ocean. It cuts through the Cascade and Klamath mountain ranges to reach the sea at Requa, California, on the Yurok Reservation.

Farmers and ranchers in the upper part of the Klamath Basin who depend on the Klamath Irrigation Project have had to deal with regular water shortages because of drought and over-allocation. Tribal nations and fishing communities upstream and downstream of the dams have seen fish stocks shrink, with 250 miles of spawning habitat rendered inaccessible by dams and water fouled by harmful algal blooms. 

Water quality in the basin is a complex, critical and poorly understood feature of the Klamath ecosystem and will play a significant role in how the river recovers following dam removal, Tullos said. Water quality concerns include impairments associated with temperature, dissolved oxygen, acidity, nutrients and microcystin, a toxin produced by cyanobacteria.

Dam removal by itself will likely bring many benefits, Tullos said, but probably not enough to facilitate a full rebound in populations of salmonids and other culturally important fish such as native lamprey and eulachon.

“Their recovery will be driven in large part by management of water quantity and quality,” she said.

Other researchers on the project are: Guillermo Giannico, a freshwater fish ecologist with Oregon Sea Grant; Bryan Tilt, an environmental anthropologist in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts; Julie Alexander in OSU’s Department of Microbiology; James Peterson in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences; and Laurel Genzoli of the University of Montana.

“We see this new project as a pathway for how science and tribal culture intersect and bridge the gap to a more robust river management to support future generations,” said DJ Bandrowski of the Yurok Fisheries Department.

The work will build on a one-year project that Oregon Sea Grant funded in 2021. One outcome of those efforts was the creation of an online multimedia site where people can scroll through maps, text and photos to learn about the dams; key events involving the river, its users and its fish; how removal of the dams may affect water quality; and how people view potential impacts of dam removal.