How the Endangered Species Act is Helping to Restore the Klamath River Basin

By Dave Jennings

The Klamath River Basin (KRB) covers an area of 15,700 square miles across California and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. The KRB is recognized as having exceptionally high biodiversity, particularly for birds. Fish are another important ecological component of the KRB, with 83 fish species are found throughout. Historically, Native American tribes in the area frequently utilized salmon and other fish for subsistence – in fact, the KRB was once home to the third largest salmon fishery on the west coast. As settlers moved in during the late 19th century, KRB water increasingly was diverted to irrigate arid farmland. This led to authorization of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project in 1905 and the subsequent construction of various dams and diversions within the KRB. These diversions resulted in the collapse of several fisheries in the 20th century. Ever increasing water use, and severe drought conditions, brought conflicts over water use to a head in the early 2000s when water conservation measures were taken in order to protect several fish listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Three KRB fish species are especially significant from an environmental perspective. In 1988, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the Lost River (Deltistes luxatus) and shortnose (Chasmistes brevirostris) suckers to the ESA. Both species are endemic to the Upper Basin, and are only found in Upper Klamath Lake and waters nearby. In 1997, the National Marine Fisheries Service added the anadromous coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch). Because of these listings the Bureau of Reclamation is required to avoid taking actions likely to jeopardize the species’ existence or destroy any of their critical habitat. The drought conditions in 2001 led to severe restrictions on water released for the Klamath Project, which the media portrayed as pitting “famers against fish.” Repeated problems with water quality and fish conservation throughout the 2000s highlighted the need for a more effective long-term solution to water management in the KRB.

PacifiCorp is the company licensed to operate seven dams in the KRB. PacifiCorp’s 50-year license expired in 2006, and since then they have operated the dams under annual licenses. Retrofitting the dams to allow fish passage and comply with the ESA was prohibitively expensive, so PacifiCorp and other stakeholders came together in 2010 to develop and eventually sign the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA). These agreements involve removal of the four dams along the Klamath River, and would constitute the largest dam removal project in history. Or, as eloquently stated by then Governor Schwarzenegger, the KBRA means saying “Hasta la vista, Klamath Dams.” Four dams are proposed to be removed beginning in 2020, along with various associated power generation facilities, water intake structures, canals, pipelines, and ancillary buildings.

Perhaps surprisingly, ensuring protection of ESA-listed species has united many of the different stakeholders with interests in the KRB. There would likely be some adverse effects of dam removal in the short-term, such as increased sediment, but these are outweighed by the long-term benefits. For instance, dam removal should improve water quality and ensure that the Klamath River will become more free-flowing again. Water bodies within the KRB will become more connected, increasing the availability of habitat for many species. Native American tribes, as well as recreational and commercial fishermen, should especially benefit from the increased habitat available for salmonids and suckers. In fact, with improved water quality, less water will be needed to flush out the fish parasite Ceratonova shasta, which will potentially increase the water available for farmers. Dam removal is still not certain to go ahead, and the clock is ticking for the process to begin in 2020, but after being the subject of initial animosity, three ESA-listed fish may yet help to restore the KRB for the benefit of all.


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About the Author

Dave Jennings is a 2L at Vermont Law School interested in environmental law and policy, particularly wildlife conservation and ecosystem management.