Think Out Loud

Checking in on the next phase of Klamath dam removal

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Jan. 24, 2024 6:06 p.m. Updated: Jan. 31, 2024 8:13 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Jan. 24

The bypass tunnel at the bottom of Iron Gate Dam in Northern California has been carefully reinforced so it can handle the load of water and sediment pouring through it.

The bypass tunnel at the bottom of Iron Gate Dam in Northern California has been carefully reinforced so it can handle the load of water and sediment pouring through it.

Juliet Grable for NPR


Water is being drawn down from reservoirs on the Klamath River as the largest dam removal effort in U.S. history continues. It’s a critical step before the removal of the remaining hydroelectric dams on the river. We check in on the process with Barry McCovey Jr., the Fisheries Department director for the Yurok Tribe.

Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. After years of planning and decades of hoping, it is finally happening. The Klamath dams are coming down. Over the last two weeks, the Iron Gate, JC Boyle, and Copco 1 dams were all breached, and the reservoirs behind them are being drawn down. The dams still have to be fully removed and there are decades of restoration work ahead, but it’s a momentous time for everybody and everything in the Klamath Basin. Barry McCovey Jr. joins us now for an update. He is the Fisheries Department director for the Yurok Tribe. Barry, welcome back.

Barry McCovey Jr.: Hey, thanks for having me.

Miller: So this has been a really momentous month. I want to talk about what has already happened. We’ll get to the future in a little bit. Can you tell us about the work at Iron Gate Dam on January 8th?

McCovey Jr.: Yeah. The work actually started over the summer with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation and their contractor Kiewit Construction, and many others working on setting up all these dams so that they were ready to be breached this winter. A lot of work went into it over the summer, drilling holes and making room for that water to come out, making sure things are safe. A lot of work went into it over the past six months or so.

January 11th was the day they opened, one of the lower outlet valves on the dam at Iron Gate. So the water was allowed to freely flow through the dam instead of around it or over it, it was flowing under the dam, and effectively started the process of draining Iron Gate reservoir back to a river, the first time since the 1960s that the river has flowed freely through that area underneath that dam. So that was really exciting. I was lucky enough to be there that day.

Miller: What was going through your mind when it started happening?

McCovey Jr.: Kind of a lot of different things. It’s excitement, it’s anticipation. Tribal people and river advocates have worked so hard on this over the past couple of decades. So there’s a lot of emotions involved. Myself personally, I’m really excited. But I’m also thinking about the future and thinking about all the work that’s yet to come. And I’m also really excited about that.

Miller: A week after that, there was a visually more dramatic moment. There was a detonation at the bottom of the JC Boyle Dam, as opposed to just opening up a gate, this was an explosion. Let’s have a listen to what that sounded like, we’re going to hear the blast and then the torrent of water that followed.

[Explosion sound, followed by rushing water sounds]

Miller: So despite that blast, I don’t want to give listeners the impression that the entire dam was taken down. It was more controlled than that. Just in terms of the drawdown, what’s gonna happen over the next few months?

McCovey Jr.: Like you said, this is all very, very controlled. Engineers have been working on this for a long time. Safety is of the utmost importance on this project. All of these dams being breached are really, really controlled operations.

Iron Gate is the largest dam and largest reservoir. So that’s been slowly draining out since the gate was lifted on the 11th. And then the next one that we just talked about, JC Boyle, was breached with an explosion. So there was a tunnel that was drilled through most of the dam and then the explosion opened the tunnel up the rest of the way. And JC Boyle Reservoir is the smallest of the three reservoirs and that drained within a day or so. So that reservoir is already completely drained. And then of course, yesterday, the last breach occurred when there was an explosion in a tunnel at Copco 1 Dam, and that opened up Copco reservoir to start being drained. So that’s happening right now as we speak.

Miller: For the first time in how long is the river flowing more or less freely?

McCovey Jr.: Yeah, the river is connected again. It’s fully connected through the holes in the bottoms of those dams. There’s still some reservoirs that need to be drained out over the next couple of months. But there’s a connection there, and that connection hasn’t been in place in over 100 years. Copco 1 was put in 1912 or 1913. And so it’s been a long time. Now, there’s a constant connected flow of water all the way through the system. And that’s really, really exciting. It’s an amazing day.

Miller: Let’s talk about salmon. Where are we right now in late January in the salmon life cycle?

McCovey Jr.: So right now their eggs have been deposited. And it kind of depends on what species you’re talking about, coho or Chinook, and then obviously what run. There are spring and fall Chinook salmon. But in general, salmon eggs would have been deposited in the gravel in the months of October, November, and December. And now those eggs are developing in the gravel and they’re gonna start emerging soon as fry, and then starting their migration out to sea. So that’s where we’re at right now.

Miller: Why was this time chosen for these three dams to be breached?

McCovey Jr.: A lot of thought went into the timing of when we should breach these dams. January was chosen not just because on the calendar makes sense, but it makes sense ecologically too. There’s not a lot of fish in the river right now, there’s not a lot of adult fish, there’s not a lot of juveniles, the fish that are in the river and the gravel. That’s the time period where researchers and scientists felt like we would see the least amount of impacts to the fishery. So that’s why this time of year was chosen.

In addition, this is when we’re going to see the most rain. And that rain is going to help evacuate the sediment from the bottom of the reservoirs.


Miller: How much sediment are we talking about? And what’s in it?

McCovey Jr.: There’s a lot of sediment build up, as you can imagine. Iron Gate has been there since the ‘60s, and JC Boyle has been there 50 or 60 years, and then Copco has been there for over 100 years. So over that time a lot of sediment has been deposited behind those dams and in those reservoirs, and then a lot has been created from algae decaying and dying and sinking to the bottom.

But rivers are designed to carry sediment, that’s what they do. People have put a lot of thought into how to attenuate that sediment transport out of those reservoirs and out into the ocean and down the river. So we’re planning on how to help with that, and working really hard with partners, whether it’s the Klamath River Renewal Corporation or Resources Environmental Solutions on restoration and helping with that sediment evacuation.

Miller: And you were noting that the recent rains are beneficial to make it more likely that the sediment will be pushed down river to the ocean faster.

McCovey Jr.: Exactly. The more rain we get the better this winter, it’s going to help us evacuate as much of that sediment out and flush it out to sea and down the river as possible. We’ve had a pretty rainy January so far and it looks like we’re going to get some more rain. So that’s good news.

Miller: How much are you and everybody who’s a part of this process actively restoring the river system, currently and going forward, as opposed to letting nature take its course? How do you figure out that balance?

McCovey Jr.: It’s tough. But I think that’s one of the most important things we can do, is build sideboards. Not literal sideboards, but figuratively speaking. The restoration process should be one where we are building side boards that are helping the river fix itself, in this slow and controlled process, letting nature take its course, as you said. Rivers have been impacted before by large-scale sediment events, whether it’s volcanic eruptions or landslides and things like that, especially in the Pacific Northwest. And they know how to heal themselves. So just like rivers have done for millions and millions of years, the Klamath River has the ability to heal itself. Of course, there’s timelines associated with that that humans aren’t comfortable with. So we can help the river heal itself, and that’s what we’re gonna try to do.

One thing that we’re immediately doing in partnership with Resource Environmental Solutions is we’re starting to replant and reseed the reservoir footprints to kind of lock some of that sediment in place, to attenuate the flow of that sediment into the river. The river can transport sediment, but it transports it at a certain rate. And so if we can help dictate the rate of sediment transfer by locking in some of it with vegetation, then that’s what we’re going to try to do.

Miller: Has that already started, the planting?

McCovey Jr.: Yes. As soon as the reservoir started to drop, we had crews in there starting to reseed those the reservoir footprints. This is a project that’s been going on for five years or so, collecting native seeds and propagating them at nurseries. I think in total, they’ve collected and propagated 17 billion seeds or some crazy number like that. That’s all gonna be deposited throughout the reservoir reach.

Miller: What kinds of shrubs or trees are we talking about?

McCovey Jr.: There’s oak trees and there’s native vegetation, there’s riparian vegetation. Everything that you would naturally find growing along a river in that area is what we’re trying to replant there. We don’t want it to be vegetated by invasive or exotic species that are going to cause harm to the ecosystem. We’ve worked really, really hard over the past few years to make sure that we’re collecting native local seeds and that those are what’s going to be planted in the area.

Miller: As I’ve said, you’re the fisheries department director for the Yurok Tribe. And in the past, we’ve talked largely about salmon. Let’s turn back to them. Can you just remind us how recent returns, how those numbers have compared to historical numbers, to pre-dam numbers?

McCovey Jr.: It’s hard to get really clear numbers from prior to 100 years ago, when the first dam went in. But most scientists who really studied this and looked at different aspects feel like we’re probably around 10% of what the historic numbers were for salmon spawning in the Klamath River. And so we’ve had a 90% decrease. And that seems to have taken a turn for the worse, if it could get any worse, over the past decade or so, since we had drought kind of take hold here in the west, in 2014 or 2015. We’ve seen some pretty significant declines in returning salmon numbers. And so this dam removal project, the salmon habitat restoration project, the largest of its kind in the history of the world I think, couldn’t come at a better time.

Miller: What are the estimates for what returns will be like in, say, 30 years? And I don’t know if I should say estimates or hopes?

McCovey Jr.: It’s hopes right now. Because like I mentioned earlier, this is the largest project of this type ever attempted. We’ve seen salmon recover on other rivers where dams have been removed. And so we’re confident that salmon will recover. How fast they’ll recover, that’s kind of up to them and it’s up to the river, and it’s up to us to try and help. But nobody really knows that answer. We know that things will get better. Things have to get better when you do work that impacts an ecosystem of this magnitude. We know that the ecosystem will slowly start to heal itself, and then that will be passed along to the things that are reliant upon that ecosystem, like salmon, like lamprey, like green sturgeon, and everything that relies on the ecosystem, including the people of this basin.

So time will tell. But we’re very, very confident that eventually we’ll see large runs of salmon returning to the upper Klamath Basin again.

Miller: We’ve talked a handful of times now, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you - I hope you don’t mind my asking how old you are?

McCovey Jr.: I’m 45 years old. I’m middle aged. And I’m lucky, because I have the opportunity. I feel like I might live long enough to be able to see the Klamath Basin restore itself. And that’s the most exciting part of all of this to me is, I get a chance to watch that basin and that river heal itself. And not only that, but I’m lucky enough to be in a position where hopefully I can play a role in helping the river heal itself.

Miller: You know, it’s the opposite direction that we’re used to talking about in so many ways. So often it’s older people saying to their kids or their grandkids “oh, when I was younger, the world was better in this way.” Obviously, some things have gotten better in terms of scientific advances and medical advances, but rarely ecologically do we say that. Your hope is that you can actually say that?

McCovey Jr.: Yeah, and I’m confident we will. I can tell my kids now “look, things are gonna be better when you’re my age.” And that’s something, like you said, that’s pretty rare. There’s not a lot of opportunities for people to do that today.

Miller: Barry McCovey, Jr., I look forward to talking again. Thanks very much.

McCovey Jr.: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Barry McCovey Jr. is the Fisheries Department director for the Yurok Tribe.

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