What is behind the Klamath dam removals? S14E1

A river and a dam.


This is a historic year on the Klamath River, where the biggest dam removal in the U.S. is underway. The hope for the monumental engineering project is that it will restore some balance to a damaged ecological system. We hear from Mark Bransom, who is overseeing the demolition and restoration, about why and how it’s happening and some of the challenges of the project.

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Season 14
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RACHEL ROBERTSON: Hi everyone. It’s 2024. And something big is happening on the Klamath River. It sounds like this. 

[audio from YouTube video: COPCO 1 DRAWDOWN DAM BLAST. Klamath River, California] 

ROBERTSON: That is the sound a dam being blasted open, releasing the river that has been held back for 100 years. That dam, named Copco 1, is one of four dams being removed from the Klamath River. The project is the biggest dam removal in the U.S. — and possibly the world.  

I’m Rachel Robertson, and this podcast season is about the Klamath dam removals, starting with what is happening and why. 

[MUSIC: “The Ether Bunny,” by Eyes Closed Audio, licensed under CC by 3.0] 

ROBERTSON: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is Engineering Out Loud. 

ROBERTSON: First, let’s hear about what makes this project historic. 

MARK BRANSOM: We're certainly not aware of any other project that has included the simultaneous removal of four dams and the restoration of almost 2,500 acres of land. Certainly, there have been landscape scale restoration projects in the country that are on a similar scale, but when you combine all of these different variables, I understand that it very well could be the largest dam removal and salmon recovery project ever contemplated anywhere in the world. 

[MUSIC: “Flocks of Light,” by Yehezkel Raz, licensed through Artlist.io]

ROBERTSON: That’s Mark Bransom, he is the CEO of the company in charge the demolition and restoration. The company, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation  — or just the KRRC — currently owns the dams and the 8,000 adjoining acres that will eventually be transferred to the states of Oregon and California. He is also a graduate of Oregon State University where he got his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering.  

BRANSOM: My role as the CEO of the Renewal Corporation is very narrowly focused on implementing the hydroelectric settlement agreement, which basically means ensuring that we do this project to the best of our ability with the money that we have as quickly as we can. The project is really being done for several major reasons. One is to restore fish passage, secondly, to improve water quality conditions in the mainstem of the Klamath River. So, our focus, really, as the implementer of the settlement agreement is to take the funding that we've been given, to get all the necessary permits and authorizations, to hire and oversee the construction contractors and the restoration contractors, and really do this project to the best of our ability. 

ROBERTSON: It sounds like a lot of work, right? Consider that 30 years of work led to this moment. What seemed like an impossible task was achieved through collaboration between tribal members, scientists, engineers, and staff from government agencies and conservation groups.  

So, why now? As Mark mentioned, salmon recovery is a key reason for taking out the dams. The Klamath used to teem with salmon that tribal communities depended on. Now they are at 8% of their historic population. The dam removals offer hope that tribal communities can recover an important part of their culture. 

BROOK THOMPSON: It means the world. I feel like people feel like the salmon is so separated from us because a lot of communities don't rely on salmon like we do. But for us, salmon is culture, salmon is our food source, salmon is our exercise. And you just can't separate our culture from the salmon. And our culture is tied to us as Yurok people. So without the salmon, we aren't Yurok. And that's why it's everything.  

[MUSIC: “Daydreaming,” by Roie Shpigler, licensed through Artlist.io]

ROBERTSON: That is Brook Thompson. She is from the Yurok and Karuk Tribes and is currently a doctoral student in environmental studies at University of California Santa Cruz. She also has a master’s degree in environmental engineering and works as a restoration engineer for the Yurok Tribe. And ... she is an activist and speaker. I was lucky enough to meet her on the banks of the Klamath River where she was helping with field work. I’ll tell you about that in another episode.

Brook saw the impact of dams on salmon firsthand. When she was seven years old, she witnessed the 2002 fish kill on the Klamath River — a disturbing event where tens of thousands of salmon lay dead on the riverbanks, a result of water being diverted for agriculture. The tragedy inspired a movement to remove the dams.

THOMPSON: People who were actually organizing protests and rallies and actions and conversations and meetings, they were told initially that this would never happen, and that this was a pipe dream. And yet to see this thing we were told was never going to happen, actually be done, is so inspiring to me when it comes to all these other climate change issues. 

[MUSIC: “Daydreaming,” by Roie Shpigler, licensed through Artlist.io]

ROBERTSON: So, what changed? In the early 1900s, these four dams were constructed for hydroelectric power only. They produced cheap, clean electricity that supported growth and  prosperity in the area. But more recently, they were contributing only 2% of the energy portfolio for PacifiCorp — the utility that was operating the dams. 

For relicensing, PacifiCorp was required to make improvements to the dams to be in compliance with the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. So, it just made better business sense to take the dams out than to pay for expensive upgrades that might not even work. 

But not everyone supported the removals — landowners, for example. Here’s Mark to explain the role the KRRC played in negotiations with landowners. He was standing at Iron Gate Dam for this interview, so you’ll hear construction equipment in the background. 

BRANSOM: We've spent a significant amount of time talking to local residents around the reservoirs to better understand their concerns and see if there are things that we can do to address potential direct project impacts that may result from implementation of the project. To that end, we have implemented an entity known as the Klamath Mitigation Fund, which has invited private property owners to come into a claims process in order to receive financial compensation to address specific sets of potential direct project impacts, whether that's a groundwater well that may be impacted, or a foundation of a home that may be impacted, or downstream flooding that may result from the removal of the dams and the small flood control benefits that the dams do provide. 

ROBERTSON: In addition to the complicated negotiations that had to happen for this project, there was also some tricky engineering. The blast you heard at the beginning of the podcast opened the dam, allowing the reservoir to drain — this is called the drawdown. It’s the first step in deconstructing the dam.  

BRANSOM: We want to do the drawdown of the reservoirs really to accomplish two major goals. One, we want to draw the reservoirs down at a rate that is sufficient to mobilize a lot of the sediment, but we never want to overtop the riverbank by having too much water coming out at any one particular point in time. So, we have done a lot of engineering and constructability reviews to ensure that we're sizing the facilities appropriately to help us accomplish and balance those two goals. So, from an engineering and constructability perspective, really getting the facilities that are going to be utilized during drawdown and evacuation of the sediment sized appropriately has been probably the most significant challenge for us. 

[MUSIC: “Murmuring,” by Yehezkel Raz, licensed through Artlist.io]

ROBERTSON: The sediment release is an issue that many are worried about. Think for a moment about what is happening as years of accumulated sediment is stirred up and enters the flow of the river. It’s a bit of a mess. Mark said that an estimated 5 to 7 million cubic yards of sediment will flush out of the system during drawdown. But aside from looking bad, the sediment should be safe for people.  

BRANSOM: We've done a lot of testing of the reservoirs. Because there's no major industrial activity upstream, there are really no chemicals of concern, nothing that exceeds any public health standard or drinking water standard. So, the sediments are relatively clean.   

ROBERTSON: For anything living in the river, though, it’s a different story.  

BRANSOM: Part of the reason that we're doing this work during the winter months, between January and roughly March or April, is to limit the biological impacts. That period of the year is the window of least biological activity, the highest flows, and the best opportunity for fish and other species in the river to move out into the tributaries to get out of the highly turbid water that will be moving down through the system. 

ROBERTSON: Mark expects that the mucky water could take one to two years to clear out of the river. So, you can understand why some people are concerned about how this will impact fish during that time. 

BRANSOM: Well, I never speak for tribal people, but I think that the tribes have said it best. The river is sick. And the river is out of balance. And the tribal people tell me that the river needs to experience at least a little bit of additional pain before the real healing can begin. And dam removal is going to impose that little extra measure of pain before the river can begin to heal after dam removal.

[MUSIC: “Close from Above,” by Yehezkel Raz, licensed through Artlist.io]

So, while we're going to have some impacts on water quality, we're going to have some impacts on species that live in the river. It is short-term pain for long-term gain, to use that old adage. We know that we're going to recover the system after just a couple of years, water quality will improve. We will restore volitional fish passage. This, in my estimation, is really a resiliency project. I've heard it described as a salmon recovery or a salmon restoration project, but I really tend to broaden it out and characterize it as a resiliency project. What I really believe we're trying to accomplish here is to create conditions that will allow those amazing species of salmon to regain a toehold in a watershed that we know, historically, they occupied from the mouth at the Pacific Ocean all the way up to the headwaters of the river near Crater Lake in Oregon. So, our job is to create those conditions, allow those amazing species to regain a toehold, put a little bit of extra emphasis on some habitat improvements or other things that we may be able to do to bolster those conditions and improve things for those species, and then get out of the way and let this river heal itself. And with that, I really do believe that the communities that rely on the river will benefit from this restoration of some balance. So, I'm very optimistic that we're on the pathway to achieve these goals. 

ROBERTSON: In the College of Engineering, we are proud of what Mark has accomplished. In fact, he will be giving the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture at the Clean Water Showcase here at Oregon State on May 21 where you can hear him speak about the Klamath dam removal project. 

BRANSOM: Well, I certainly feel fortunate that my background and the things that I've done previously in my life seemed to have prepared me well to step into this role and be a small part of getting this project across the finish line. Again, we're standing on the shoulders of our tribal partners to see this project across the finish line and play a small role here. But I really do consider this the capstone of an amazing career that started at Oregon State, positioned me well to do a large variety of things that ultimately led me to this position and this project, and I couldn't be more thankful to be here. 

ROBERTSON: The effort to decommission and demolishing four dams and restore the surrounding land is an impressive feat. There’s a lot more to tell you about. In the next episode, I’ll will focus on research that is happening on the Klamath to track the impacts of the dam removals.  

This episode was produced by me. Sean Nealon and David Baker did the interview with Mark. Steve Frandzel gave me helpful comments on the script, as always. And Duncan Robertson is assiting me with the narration recording. Thanks Duncan!

You can find links to additional content including information about the Clean Water Showcase at engineeringoutloud.oregonstate.edu.