The Klamath River’s Iron Gate Comes Down, One Scoop at a Time

By Juliet Grable  |  May 2, 2024  |  Jefferson Public Radio

Deconstruction of Iron Gate dam, the lowest of the four dams along the Oregon-California border, has begun.

The day began clear and chilly. By 8 a.m., the temperature hovered around freezing. Leaf Hillman and Lisa Morehead-Hillman, Karuk Tribal members who have spent decades advocating for dam removal, stood on the rocky overlook below the dam, waiting for the first ceremonial scoop to be removed from the 173-foot-tall earthen dam.

“There were many times that no, I didn’t think I would live to see this day, but I knew this day was coming,” said Hillman. “That I’m still alive to see it is pretty awesome.”

The Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) received authorization last week from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to remove the first 13 feet of the dam, starting from the top down.

“This is really the culmination of a two-decade process of activism and planning and engineering and construction reviews and preparations that have led to this moment,” said Mark Bransom, CEO of the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which is overseeing dam removal.

Roughly one million cubic yards of clay, sand and rock will have to be removed. A procession of dump trucks will carry the material along a road from the dam up a nearby ridge to a “borrow pit,” i.e. a crater in the hill where material for the dam was removed in the early 1960s. About 20 percent of the material will be used to fill in and cover the concrete spillway that was cut into the hillside on the north side of the Klamath River adjacent the dam.

Once FERC determines there’s no risk of high water that could compromise the earthen structure, they’ll authorize the removal of the rest of Iron Gate as well as J.C. Boyle, the most upstream of the remaining dams, which is located in Southern Oregon.

The deconstruction of Copco 1, which is a heavier and stronger concrete arch dam, began earlier this spring. Just the day before, crews engineered a blast to remove the gates and superstructure at the top of that dam.

Among those on-site to witness the first bites of the excavator were several longtime activists, including tribal members from California’s Yurok and Karuk Tribes.

“Iron Gate, out of all the dams, for downriver communities is a symbol for how important dam removal really is,” said Regina Chichizola, executive director at Save California Salmon. “I’m really happy to have brought my son here today, too.” Chichizola has been taking elementary and high school students to witness history unfolding. That day, she planned to meet a group from Hoopa High School.

They’ll watch the dam removal process, then accompany crews with Resource Environmental Solutions and help reseed the reservoirs, she explained. “We feel like it’s really important that now that it’s happening, that our communities are on the ground helping make it happen.”

For Brook Thompson, a Yurok Tribal member who is pursuing a PhD in Environmental Science at UC Santa Cruz, the day was equally significant.

“This is the start of the end of a really long journey for me: the removal of the Iron Gate dam on the Klamath River after 20-plus years of fighting to have the dams removed,” she said.

A devastating fish kill in 2002 left thousands of dead Chinook salmon floating in the lower Klamath River, near where Thompson and her family lived. That event inspired Thompson to pursue a Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering, now, as part of her PhD work, she’s exploring the nutritional differences between fall and spring Chinook salmon.

“With the dams coming down there’s some evidence to suggest that spring salmon habitat was largely upriver in the area or behind the current dam,” said Thompson. “I’m hoping with the dams coming down it gives new opportunities to restore the spring salmon [population], which is much lower than it has been historically.”

KRRC’s Ren Brownell and Karuk Tribal members Lisa Morehead-Hillman and Leaf Hillman watch as the first scoops of soil are removed from Iron Gate dam.

While the small crowd waited for the excavator to crawl back across the dam, Stormy Staats, a longtime activist who provides media support to Klamath River tribes, held up her phone to play a song activists often played at rallies and other events over the years. It was written and sung by Petey Brucker, an advocate for and lover of rivers who died just last week. After a few seconds, Staats, Chichizola and a few others joined in:

Tell we … How we gonna take down the Iron Gate

Tell me how we gonna take down the Iron Gate Dam

Tell me … How we gonna take down the Iron Gate

And let those fish run through?

The answer, apparently, is one scoop at a time. The excavator finally reached the far southern end of the dam, where a much smaller front loader was waiting. The excavator’s claw bit into the earth, lifted, and dropped it into the waiting bucket.

This story originally appeared on the Jefferson Public Radio website on May 2, 2024.