Fixing the Klamath: Restoration’s Three Essential Requisites

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Felice Pace, North Group Water Chair 

Fixing the Klamath — by which I mean not just the survival of Klamath Salmon but the return of the river’s aquatic ecosystems to a state of health adequate to support vibrant river communities, abundant salmon runs and healthy tribal economies, requires three major changes: dealing with dams, adequate flows and restoration of the water quality needed to sustain healthy river ecosystems. These three restoration requisites are like the three legs of a stool: all must be in place in order for the stool to function as intended. If one leg is weak or gives way, the restoration enterprise will not succeed.

All three restoration requisites are contested and in doubt. Below I provide an update on each of them. 

Dam Removal Hits a Snag…or Does It? 

Recently the ECONEWS Report aired excellent segments on Klamath River issues: one on Klamath flows and the second about pending removal of four of five Klamath River Dams operated by PacifiCorp, the energy company owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire-Hathaway. 

The dam report focused on a recent decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which will keep PacifiCorp involved in the process of dam removal. When it negotiated the KHSA dam deal with tribes and fishing groups, the company sought to shield its owners from liability for removing four of its five Klamath River Dams. But FERC would not go along, stating that it is in the public interest to keep the owners involved in case unforeseen problems and costs arise during dam removal. 

The FERC move is wise; tribes and fishing groups should never have agreed to allow the company to escape liability for cost overruns and unforeseen problems which may arise during dam removal. And while PacifiCorp executives howled disapproval, they will remain in the deal because otherwise PacifiCorp and its shareholders would have to remove the dams themselves. 

There is a fifth PacifiCorp Klamath River dam, Keno, which the company plans to transfer to the US Bureau of Reclamation. Keno’s reservoir has the worst water quality in the Klamath River Basin. For restoration of Klamath Salmon to succeed, the water which flows from Keno Dam into California must be cleaned up. Future proceedings for transfer should commit Reclamation to marsh restoration on the margins of Keno Reservoir and to reducing agricultural pollution throughout the federal Klamath Irrigation Project. 

Dams, reservoirs and canals of the federal Klamath Irrigation Project. Keno Dam is at the upper left where Klamath River enters the Cascade Canyon.


Trump Signals Flow Shenanigans 

Trump’s Interior Department recently announced that they will spend $1.2 million on a “new science initiative” for the Klamath River Basin. New studies will look at Klamath River flows for fish and Upper Klamath Lake requirements for endangered Shortnose and Lost River sucker fish. 

Federal irrigators lobbied for the studies. Klamath flows to reduce salmon disease levels in Klamath River and Upper Klamath Lake requirements for endangered Lost River and Shortnose sucker fish currently limit the amount of water that Reclamation can deliver to federal irrigators. Having lost a lawsuit seeking primacy of irrigation water rights over endangered species requirements, federal irrigators now seek “science” that can be used to reduce the amount of water devoted to salmon and suckers, as well as to meeting tribal treaty and reserved water rights. In other words, wealthy federal irrigators expect Trump “science” will support their interests over all others. 

Federal irrigators should be more careful about what they seek. If we get a new administration in January 2021, the new science may not meet their expectations, a result that has played out before in the Klamath River Basin. 

To summarize: Klamath River flows for fish and to meet tribal rights continue to be inadequate and under attack. Flows in the Shasta and Scott Rivers, reported on in previous editions, are also inadequate. 

New Hope for Klamath Water Quality

Water flowing from the Upper Klamath Basin does not meet water quality standards established to protect salmon and other beneficial uses of water. The same is true for the Scott and Shasta Sub-basins. The main cause is agricultural pollution. And while plans to fix Klamath, Scott and Shasta water quality were adopted more than a decade ago, water quality has not significantly improved. Dam removal will help but will not end poor water quality. 

Why are we not making progress toward restoring the water quality needed to support the healthy aquatic ecosystems on which salmon depend? While dams and reservoirs play a role, the main culprit is the North Coast Water Board’s “stewardship” policy with respect to agricultural discharges. While clean-up plans for the Klamath, Shasta and Scott include the “progressive enforcement” needed to end agricultural pollution, the “stewardship” policy has short circuited enforcement. That allows bad actors to continue polluting with impunity. As a result, water quality does not improve. 

Polluted agricultural wastewater is pumped onto Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It is eventually discharged to Keno Reservoir on the Klamath River.


A similar failure by the State Water Board to regulate agricultural discharges in the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta was recently challenged by a coalition of fishing and environmental organizations. Reasons for the challenge parallel those on the Klamath and include “acceptance of water quality below minimum Clean Water Act standards.” The lawsuit has been settled with the State Water Board agreeing “to fulfill legal requirements it had previously ignored.” 

Progressive enforcement of pollution limits for all discharges is necessary in order to secure the crucial third Klamath’s restoration requisite. Time will tell if a lawsuit proves necessary to persuade the North Coast Water Board to implement progressive enforcement

The North Group will continue working to strengthen all three restoration requisites because that is the only path to restoring Klamath Salmon and the aquatic ecosystems on which salmon depend. 

Meeting Announcement 

Share your ideas on Klamath River restoration, Humboldt Bay port development or any other topic by joining the North Group’s monthly video meetings. For meeting access directions contact Gregg Gold at or 707-826-3740.