Residents saddened by loss of Copco Lake amid Klamath dam removal

By Juliet Grable (Jefferson Public Radio)
Feb. 3, 2024 4:25 p.m.

Drawdown of three reservoirs on the Klamath River is well underway, and this step in the dam removal process has already dramatically altered the landscape along the river in Southern Oregon and far Northern California.

Iron Gate, the lowest of the three remaining dams, was first breached on Jan. 9, followed by J.C. Boyle on Jan. 16. On Jan. 23, a concrete plug in the tunnel at the base of Copco 1 was blasted away. The reservoirs drained swiftly, leaving behind vast expanses of fissured mud the color and consistency of chocolate cake batter. The Klamath River is winding through the naked landscape, finding its new shape.

The transformation has left some residents reeling.


April Sears, a resident of the Copco Lake community in California, says the last week has been “horrible.”

“First of all, we lost the lake,” she said. “It kind of hits you hard, like you lost your best friend or somebody.” A few days ago, she lost water in the home she rents on Patricia Avenue. Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the entity overseeing dam removal, is putting Sears up in a hotel in Ashland, Oregon, while they resolve the situation. Nearby, KRRC has already installed an above-ground tank to furnish 11 homes with potable water after their shared well failed.

Related: Fourth dam breached on the Klamath River

For some residents, the worst part of drawdown has been witnessing its effects on the wildlife they have come to know and love. Many have seen dead fish stranded in the mud, and on Jan. 27, residents spotted a doe and yearling that had become hopelessly stuck trying to reach water. Volunteer firefighters from the Hornbrook Fire Protection District tried to rescue the mired animals but abandoned the mission as dusk fell. Soon after, an officer from California Department of Fish and Wildlife euthanized the deer.

“The mud was so thick; it was so far out there; they tried so hard,” said Chrissie Reynolds, a long-time resident of Copco Lake who drove to the scene to try to help. “But all that time, those animals were suffering.”

Copco Lake resident Chrissie Reynolds.

Copco Lake resident Chrissie Reynolds.

Juliet Grable / JPR

Two days later, residents spotted another group of eight deer that had become trapped in the mud, but they had already died.

Peter Tira, information officer at CDFW, said his agency will be installing temporary fencing in areas where deer are likely to attempt crossing the drained reservoirs, along with reflective devices to steer them away from hazardous areas.

“We are going to deploy additional staff to the area to keep a watch on things,” he added.

Tira said that CDFW had emergency response plans for wildlife in place, but these plans focus more on specific species, including western pond turtles, listed as “species of special concern” in California, and golden and bald eagles.

“The deer issue was unanticipated,” said Tira. “But we also have to remember that this is unprecedented. This is the largest dam removal project ever undertaken in American history, so a lot of the circumstances we’re learning about are unforeseen.”

Related: Checking in on the next phase of Klamath dam removal


CDFW will rescue animals where it’s safe to do so; in addition, Hornbrook Fire District has acquired some specialized equipment for mud, water and ice rescues and will be training personnel with it soon.

Anyone who sees a stranded animal should call CDFW and should not attempt to rescue wildlife on their own, said Ren Brownell, spokesperson for Klamath River Renewal Corporation. “It’s critical at this time that people stay out of the reservoir because it is dangerous for them as well.”

Water quality worsened below Iron Gate

The influx of fine sediment and dead algae now flowing down the Klamath impaired water quality below Iron Gate, the farthest downriver dam. Oxygen levels became depleted but soon improved, according to a post on KRRC’s Facebook page. “Within 24 hours the concentration of dissolved oxygen began to recover,” it reads.

“This is a temporary impact that’s the result of what will be a very beneficial river recovery process,” said Dave Coffman, geoscientist for Resource Environmental Solutions or RES, which is leading the restoration of the reservoir footprints. “Rivers are made to transport sediment; all we did was remove the impediments to sediment transport.”

Related: No turning back: The largest dam removal in US history begins

One reason Copco Lake drained so quickly is that flows in the Klamath River are down overall, said Brownell. “Back in November or December we realized we might be in a drought condition, so we banked some water so that we could release it at first so that the first part of the reservoir would drain more slowly,” she explained. Once this banked water was used up, the rest of the lake drained swiftly. Hopefully, the strategy will keep slopes stable around homes near the former lakeshore. The Yurok Tribe is using drones to monitor slope stability on the slopes below the homes on Copco Lake and along Copco Road at Iron Gate Reservoir.

The Klamath River carving through the bed of the former Copco Lake reservoir.

The Klamath River carving through the bed of the former Copco Lake reservoir.

Juliet Grable / JPR

The speed of drawdown did not allow crews to assist with “sediment evacuation” as was planned. In that scenario crews would use jets of water and shovels to slough off chunks of mud from the banks as the water level dropped.

“Conditions just aren’t safe to be out there right now, so we pulled back until sediments firm up a little bit,” said Coffman.

Crews from RES are actively planting acorns and seeding all three reservoir footprints near the old shorelines, moving closer to the river as the mud dries. Planting will continue through the year.

“The reveg crew is right behind the house planting seed,” said Francis Gill, Copco Lake resident and fire chief for the community’s volunteer fire department. “It will be kind of neat to see when things start sprouting in the spring.” Gill and his husband, Danny Fontaine, recently rented out the old Copco Store building to the Yurok Tribe so they can use it as office space and lodging for their crews.

Related: California Gov. Gavin Newsom backs dam-removal projects aimed at sustaining salmon populations

That’s not to say Gill is happy about losing his lake. “I haven’t seen any ducks or geese or blue herons since they did this,” he said, adding that he doesn’t see how any fish in the river flowing through the now-empty reservoir could have survived the turbid conditions.

Like Gill, Reynolds is anxious to see how migratory birds, accustomed to using the lake as a refuge, react when they return, only to find it gone.

“Everyone here is used to having deer on their lawn and geese on their lawn and pelicans on their lawn,” said Reynolds, mourning what she fears will be lost forever. “We were intrinsically connected with our wildlife.”