As Massive Klamath Dam Removal Project Nears Completion, Who Gets Once-Submerged Land?

By Kurtis Alexander  |  Feb. 22, 2024  |  San Francisco Chronicle

The nation’s largest dam-removal project, the dismantling of four hydroelectric dams near the border of California and Oregon border, may be the end of one story — but it’s the beginning of another.

The native Shasta people, who were exiled from the banks of the Klamath River more than a century ago, in part because of dam construction, are expected to acquire a stretch of ancestral land that is emerging along the river as the dams come out and the reservoirs behind them dry up.

Tribal members envision a revival of their age-old community on the property, which the state is looking to hand over as acknowledgement of their enduring hardship. The displaced Shasta people never found a place to regroup after the forced diaspora. Many of their descendants, now scattered across California and beyond, hope to come live, work and worship on the riverfront they still call home.

“We really need to be back,” said Connie Collins, a Southern California resident and council secretary for the roughly 300-member Shasta Indian Nation, the tribe that traces its lineage to the rugged hills and valleys where the dams were built. “My family is from there. We’ve longed for the return to our homelands for such a long time, and now we finally have hope.”

The removal of the dams on the Klamath River is the product of a decades-long push by Native Americans, environmentalists, and fishing groups to restore the natural flow of the 250-mile waterway, which runs from southern Oregon’s lofty Cascade Range to the thick forests of California’s North Coast.

The first of the dams, about a six-hour drive from San Francisco, was torn down last year. The three others were breached In January, to drain the water behind them, in anticipation of razing them by fall.

Supporters of the project want a free-flowing river, most fundamentally, to rejuvenate salmon. The river’s salmon population was once the third-largest on the west coast, but collapsed partly because the dams blocked fish habitat. For Indigenous groups in the Klamath Basin, including the Shasta people, salmon were not only food but a spiritual and cultural staple.

Another major benefit of the project, for Native Americans, is the transfer of land.

As part of the deal for dam removal, the states of California and Oregon, which helped negotiate the deconstruction, will receive about 8,000 acres that the utility, PacifiCorp, unloaded alongside the aging power facilities. The company got rid of its assets because of the maintenance expense. It’s now covering the roughly $500 million cost of taking out the dams, aided by some California bond money.

Lands submerged by the reservoirs that are beginning to resurface are already being tended to by contracted planting crews in hopes of returning them to grasslands and forest. More than 17 billion seeds are slated for planting, representing 97 species of grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees. In many areas, the restoration work will continue for years.

California officials told the Chronicle this month they’re in talks with Native American groups to “co-develop a plan for the ownership and stewardship” of project lands. Officials declined to provide details, wanting discussions to be private. However, planning documents indicate the state is looking to transfer property in Siskiyou County to the Shasta Indian Nation, and perhaps other tribes, as a small measure of compensation for disturbances caused by the dams and their removal.

The transfers come amid growing interest by the state and other land managers in seeing Indigenous groups administer — and protect — California’s wildlands. Last year, the Newsom administration counted more than 12,000 acres that the state and various conservation groups helped return to Native Americans. The lands alongside the Klamath River would be a significant addition.

Mark Bransom, CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corp., the nonprofit established to carry out the dam removal, doesn’t make the decision about transfers, but he has knowledge of the process and said, “The tribe has a very compelling case.”

A Forced Exodus

The discovery of gold in California’s far north marked the beginning of the Shasta people’s forced exodus from their land.

After inhabiting villages in the Klamath Basin for at least 8,000 years, subsisting chiefly on fish, deer, and acorns, according to archeological records, the Indigenous residents were viewed by newly arriving Europeans as an obstacle to mining.

In the mid-1800s, settlers shot and killed many of those living along the river, burning their wooden plank houses, sweat lodges and assembly buildings, historical documents show. Other tribal members were relocated to reservations.

Those who stayed homesteaded, with some able to purchase newly privatized lots. A Shasta chief named Bogus Tom Smith was one of the foremost figures in the drive to hold onto ancestral land, using a variety of methods. He promoted the Ghost Dance, a ritual believed to invoke spirits to fight off colonizers, and called on Indigenous women to intermarry with the white residents to preserve property rights.

“There was a sacrifice to try to keep their land base,” said Brian Daniels, an archeologist and director of research and programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center. He has long worked with the Shasta Indian Nation and documented its history. “It’s a really tragic story.”

With the development of the Klamath Hydroelectric Project in the early 1900s, the Shasta people’s attempts to remain in the area stalled. Most of what they owned or controlled was seized for power generation.

Over the next 60 years, five dams went up on the main stem of the river, three in California and two in Oregon, putting both new and old pieces of the Indian community under water. One of the dams in Oregon as well as the federally run Link River Dam on Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake are not part of the demolition. Both are equipped with fish ladders that allow salmon to pass. None of the project dams and reservoirs were designed for flood control or to store irrigation or drinking water.

“They forced my family to leave their ranch,” said Larry R. Leonard, a member of the Shasta Indian Nation.

Leonard lives in Sacramento but has regularly visited the power project over the years to see his homeland, if only from the window of a car or nearby park. He is a direct descendent of Kitty Ward, one of the last Shasta people to leave the land and a legend in the tribal community for her resistance. She’s said to have snubbed orders to vacate, only to be tricked into leaving her cabin briefly for the nearby town of Hornbrook, where she died.

Leonard’s affinity for the Klamath Basin was shaped by his grandfather, who took him fishing in the creeks and walking in the hills, long after his ancestors were gone.

“My grandfather knew the place. He would say that’s my great-great-aunt’s friend’s house over there,” Leonard recalled. “But really it’s just a field.”

While the loss of the tribal community is old history, many in the Shasta Indian Nation worry that dam removal could bring a new round of upheaval to their ancestral home. They fear that the drawdown of reservoirs and a free-flowing river will wash away remnants of Shasta settlement and further erode their connection to the area.

“We don’t want our cultural resources disturbed,” said Sami Jo Difuntorum, culture preservation officer for the tribe. “But we’ve come to reconcile that disruption is inevitable — again.”

The Shasta Indian Nation is somewhat an outlier among Native American groups because of its mixed feelings about dam removal instead of wholehearted support.

In light of the tribe’s continuing concerns, Difuntorum expects the Klamath River Renewal Corporation to protect “cultural resources” as the dams and reservoirs disappear, and she hopes ultimately the area will be returned to her people to safeguard.

Restoring the Community

On a recent afternoon, Difuntorum watched the newly freed Klamath River splash downstream from what was once one of the biggest reservoirs in the hydroelectric project, Copco Lake.

The river’s flow was swift and muddy, cascading from a hole that had been blasted in the cement Copco 1 Dam to forever empty the lake water behind it. A smaller diversion dam a short distance downstream was removed last year, allowing the river to pour through a canyon that hadn’t seen much water since the dam was completed in the 1920s.

“It’s powerful. The river is powerful. The sound is powerful,” Difuntorum said. “It’s almost like you can hear and sense that the rocks are welcoming the water back again.”

This segment of river, named Ward’s Canyon in memory of Kitty Ward, is among the acreage that the Shasta Indian Nation is hoping to acquire — a little less than a third of the total 8,000 acres that the two states will receive. The broader area is known as Kíkacéki to the Shasta people and considered sacred, holding the center of their spiritual world. It was historically the site of one of the largest Shasta villages as well as smaller villages, fishing hubs and ceremony sites.

While much of this land was under water before Copco Lake began to drain, not all of it was. Some of the property is where PacifiCorp ran its operations, with roads and buildings, including a small schoolhouse, storage complex, old powerhouse and handful of homes. Other parts are wilderness.

Tribal members say they hope to rebuild their lost community on the property by repurposing existing structures as well as adding more homes and other essentials such as a fish processing station and smokehouse.

Public access would be granted on much of the land. A visitor-friendly reassembled traditional village and trails are being discussed, tribal members say. The existing powerhouse could be turned into an interpretive center, some have suggested.

Although the property transfer is probably years off, coming after the dams are down and the restoration of the land is firmly underway, the Shasta people’s return is already being warmly received.

One unexpected welcoming came from the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors. The board, which has long opposed the dam removal, said the tribal members would make “good neighbors” in a recent letter to the state endorsing the property transfer.

For Daniels, the archeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, transferring land to the tribe would be a fitting end to the project.

“There’s a big victory that’s being celebrated in so many ways about the dams being removed, but what happens next?” he said. “For me, that’s really the interesting part of the story.”

Collins, the tribal secretary for the Shasta Indian Nation, describes the transfer as almost essential for her people.

“We’re tied to that land,” she said. “It’s inseparable from us, from our tribe. It’s one of the things you feel when you’re there and drawn to when you’re not. That connection is hard to describe, but if you know, you know.”

Kurtis Alexander is an enterprise reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, with a focus on natural resources and the environment. He frequently writes about water, wildfire, climate and the American West. His recent work has examined the impacts of drought, threats to public lands and wildlife, and the nation’s rural-urban divide. Before joining the Chronicle, Alexander worked as a freelance writer and as a staff reporter for several media organizations, including The Fresno Bee and Bay Area News Group, writing about government, politics and the environment. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 22, 2024 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle.