How Much Water Does a River Need? All of It

By Caroline Griffith

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history is inching closer to fruition. In April, the State Water Resources Control Board issued a Clean Water permit and environmental assessment for the proposal to breach four dams on the Klamath River. The lengthy process to remove the Copco #1, Copco #2, J.C. Boyle and Iron Gate dams was started in 2004 by Klamath River tribes and fishermen in response to the 2002 fish kill in which over 65,000 salmon died due to reduced water flows and increased water temperatures. 

Like the Scott Dam on the Eel River (which was previously reported on in EcoNews and is also on track to be removed), the operation of the dams in question no longer makes financial sense for current owner, PacifiCorp. They produce very little power and relicensing them with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) would likely be costly due to environmental mandates to provide fish passage. A non-profit organization that was created to remove the dams, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC), has petitioned FERC to transfer ownership of the dams and has already hired a contractor to carry out the removal. It is waiting on FERC approval of the license transfer to move onto the next phase, which will involve submitting a dam removal plan and then waiting for that to be approved. Though FERC has been under fire lately from environmental activists for expediting approval of pipeline projects during the COVID-19 public health crisis, groups who are working toward dam removal, such as Save California Salmon, say it is dragging its feet when it comes to approving this license transfer. PacifiCorp, which is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, supports the license transfer.

The dams on the Klamath River block 420 miles of habitat and, by reducing water flows, lead to toxic algal blooms and high water temperatures. According to Regina Chichizola of Save California Salmon, last year was one of the worst salmon runs in history. “We are losing multiple age classes of salmon every year,” Chichizola says. “The situation is dire. We need the dams removed as soon as possible.”  Although these specific dams are on the road to removal, elsewhere in the watershed, dams and proposed water diversion projects continue to threaten the salmon and those who rely on them. 

Due to court decisions which led to the Lower Klamath River Long Term Plan, Trinity River water, which is colder than the Klamath, can be released to stop fish kills in drought or low water years. However, there are numerous projects proposed that would affect Trinity River flows, in turn affecting the Klamath River. 

There are also two dams already on the Trinity River (Trinity Dam and Lewiston Dam) which divert water to Whiskeytown Lake and then into the Sacramento River via a ten-mile tunnel built through a mountain. The main beneficiary of this water is the Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural district in the United States, which comprises more than 600,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties. Agricultural products produced using water from the District (and from the Trinity River) include almonds, pistachios and grapes. The former lobbyist for the District, David Bernhardt, was recently confirmed as Secretary of the Department of the Interior for the Trump administration. The Trump Administration Water Plan seeks to divert 22% more water to the Central Valley for irrigation and would impact the Trinity, Klamath, Feather, Yuba, American, Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, among others.

Other threats to the Trinity include the Sites Reservoir Project and the Shasta Dam enlargement. Sites Reservoir would be a 14.7 billion dollar, 14,000 acre reservoir off of the Sacramento River. According to the Sites Project website, the reservoir will “capture winter runoff from uncontrolled streams below the existing reservoirs in the Sacramento Valley… Much of the rainfall from extreme events – especially those that occur back-to-back when the ground is saturated – runs off before it can be captured for maximum environmental, urban and agricultural benefit.” This is a variation of Trump’s claim that water is being wasted when we allow rivers to flow into the ocean. A hydrology report commissioned by Save California Salmon shows that the Sites reservoirs diversions would increase temperatures in the Trinity River, harming salmon.

Many of these proposed projects are evaluated and scoped separately, making them appear unconnected, but rivers are connected like veins in a circulatory system: cutting off an artery affects the veins it would have run into. To protect the Klamath River for all of the species that rely on it, including humans, we need to step back and look at the entire system. And then step up to protect all of the waterways that flow into that system.