“This is historic and life-changing,” Cordalis said. “And it means that the Yurok people have a future. It means the river has a future; the salmon have a future.” – Amy Cordalis, attorney and Yurok Tribe member
The largest dam removal in U.S. history entered a critical phase this week, with the lowering of dammed reservoirs on the Klamath River.
On Thursday, the gate on a 16-foot-wide bypass tunnel at the base of Iron Gate dam, the lowest of those slated to be removed, was opened from a crack to 36 inches.
Amy Cordalis stood in the dawn chill to witness the first big surge as the gate was widened. She’s an attorney and Yurok Tribe member who has played a critical role in advocating for dam removal. As water poured through the tunnel, she could hear boulders rolling and tumbling. The water turned to dark chocolate milk as decades of pent-up sediment surged through.
“This is historic and life-changing,” Cordalis said. “And it means that the Yurok people have a future. It means the river has a future; the salmon have a future.”
Mike Belchik, a senior policy adviser for the Yurok Tribe, was also there to witness the controlled breach.
“It’s kind of surreal,” said Belchik, who has worked on Klamath River water issues for the tribe for nearly 30 years. “I don’t know why we had such confidence that it was going to happen. But we did. We always knew it would happen.”
One hundred seventy-three feet high, with a 740-foot crest, Iron Gate is an earth embankment dam with a skinny, many-fingered reservoir behind it. The lowering — or drawdown — of Iron Gate and two other reservoirs on the Klamath River will make way for the removal of three remaining hydroelectric dams that are part of the Lower Klamath Project in Northern California and southern Oregon.
For decades, these barriers have blocked salmon, steelhead and Pacific lamprey from accessing habitat above them and contributed to poor water quality below. The Klamath River was once the third-largest salmon producer on the West Coast, but in the time since the dams were constructed, the Klamath’s coho and Chinook runs have dwindled to a fraction of their historic abundance.
When tribal activists first started calling for the removal of four Klamath River dams in the late 1990s, people thought they were “crazy,” said Leaf Hillman, an elder of the Karuk Tribe who helped launch the campaign. “We’ve never really considered any other alternative to removing dams. And so it was a fight that we were committed to, and that we knew that we had to win. And it’s been an intergenerational struggle…”