Largest Dam Removal in U.S. History Set to Begin

By Bo Evans  |  Feb. 24, 2022  |  Scripps

The Iron Gate Dam, one of four dams on the Klamath River, will be removed in 2023. It will be the largest dam removal in U.S. history.

For Pachomio Feliz, the waters of the Klamath River and Pacific are life. He’s a member of the Yurok Tribe.

“This is our lifeblood,” he said. “Without the river, we’d be dead.”

The Klamath River runs from southern Oregon to the Pacific Ocean in California.

Along the way, there are four dams holding back the river’s natural flow. The dams were originally built to produce electricity and regulate water levels on the river. Environmentalists in the area say those dams are harming the river’s health.

“It has huge impacts. It has impacts on water quality, huge impacts on river systems and the basins where they’re placed,” said Jim McCarthy, an activist working for WaterWatch, a group in Oregon that advocates for river and water health.

WaterWatch, and other groups, have been advocating for dam removals around the U.S. for decades.

“I think what people don’t realize is there are a lot of dams in the country, over 90,000,” said Brian Graber, who works for the group American Rivers.

According to the group’s most recent dam report, 85 percent of the country’s dams are over 50 years old, which is the average life expectancy for most dams.

“We have to be deliberate about what we do with our rivers because they are facing more and more stress and if we want to keep these resources alive, taking out dams is part of the portfolio of things we need to be doing,” said McCarthy.

The Klamath’s health has been declining for years. The river was once the third-largest salmon run on the West Coast. The dams have impacted the salmon’s habitat and food supply, causing the runs to drop drastically. Those fish were the food supply for the Yurok Tribe.

“The word for salmon in Yurok is Ney-puy. The direct translation of Ney-puy means ‘what we eat,'” said Frankie Myers, the vice-chair of the Yurok Tribe.

The dams have dominated the river his whole life. “The lower four dams on the Klamath River — for Yurok people — are a monument to colonialism,” said Myers.

The Yurok and advocates like Brian and Jim have been fighting through government red tape for the last 20 years. They might have finally achieved their goal.

Right now, the four dams are slated to be removed starting next year. “The removal of the four lower dams on the Klamath River would have a dramatic impact on our way of life not only for our subsistence fishery but for the emotional and mental well-being of our people as well,” said Myers.

If the four are removed it will join a growing list. Nearly 60 dams were removed last year in 22 states and almost 2,000 dams have been removed over the last 100 years.

Myers hopes the Klamath will be renewed for his tribe.

“This has been my fight, my whole life. My children, my prayer, is that it won’t be theirs. Not that they won’t need to fight. Not that they won’t have a struggle, but that this struggle won’t be theirs,” he said.

This story originally appeared on Scripps-affiliated stations on Feb. 24, 2022.