Reconnect Klamath FAQ

Fish jumping

Frequently Asked Questions:

Where is the Klamath Basin?

About the size of Maryland, the Klamath Basin encompasses over 12,000 square miles that stretch from the peaks of the Cascades in southeastern Oregon to the foggy, fern riddled redwood forests of California’s north coast.

Why is the Klamath Basin so important?

The Klamath is home to California and Oregon’s largest Indian Tribes, a lynchpin of the West Coast’s commercial salmon industry, a major feeding and nesting ground for millions of migratory birds and supports a robust farming and ranching economies.

The Klamath is one of the three major salmon producing rivers on the West Coast, the health of which determines ocean harvest allocations for commercial and sport salmon fishing industries (the other two are the Columbia and Sacramento). The bounty of the Klamath sustains large populations of Native Americans – the Yurok Tribe at the mouth of the Klamath in northwestern CA, the Karuk in north central CA, and the Klamath Tribes of Oregon at the Klamath’s headwaters in south central Oregon. The Hoopa Valley Tribe is located along the Klamath’s largest tributary, the Trinity River.

All the Tribes traditionally and contemporarily depend on salmon and other fisheries economically and culturally. Note that these Tribal communities represent some of the poorest people in America and subsistence hunting and fishing are still a very real and important way that Tribal People feed themselves and their families.

The Klamath once saw salmon runs that averaged 1.2 million salmonids annually. Today, the runs of Klamath salmon are a fraction that number with some species such as Chum and Pink salmon extinct in the Klamath, others such as Coho listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and Spring salmon on the verge of extinction.

The loss of salmon has not only robbed Tribes of a truly renewable economic base, but an irreplaceable cultural resource as well. In the natural lakes of the Upper Klamath Basin, endemic sucker species are also in steep decline. Suckers are a traditional food for the Klamath Tribes of Oregon. The ceremonial and religious practices of the Klamath Basin Tribes are intimately connected to the fisheries. As the salmon are lost, so is part of America’s diverse cultural heritage.

With fisheries in decline, water curtailments and other regulations have affected the region’s robust agricultural economy. The federal Klamath Irrigation Project serves over 1,400 family farms on 225,000 acres. There are many other farms and ranches outside the Project that also depend on water diversions. Because of the economic connections between the Klamath’s small rural communities, the collapse of the fisheries is affecting the livelihoods of nearly everyone in the Klamath Basin.

In addition to the fisheries, the lakes and marshes of the Upper Klamath Basin are a major feeding and nesting ground for millions of birds that traverse the Pacific Flyway. In recognition of the importance of the area for waterfowl, President Theodore Roosevelt created the nation’s first wildlife refuge in 1908 – the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Today the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex includes 192,000 acres of wetlands and marshes including Bear Valley, Klamath Marsh, and Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon; and Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, and Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuges in California. Unfortunately, the struggle to balance water use between fisheries and agriculture often leave the refuges dry to the detriment of migratory bird populations.

Why are Klamath fisheries in decline?

There is a wide range of factors contributing to the decline of Klamath basin fisheries. Dams, diversions, mining operations, poor logging practices, large fish hatcheries, destruction of natural wetlands and riparian zones, and road building are generally considered the leading causes of fish declines.

What causes the toxic algae blooms on the Klamath?

The Klamath’s headwaters originate in the volcanic geology of Southwestern Oregon. This means the water is naturally rich in nitrogen and phosphorous. Historically, the vast wetlands of the Upper Basin consumed much of these nutrients before the river flowed downstream. Today, much of the wetlands have been lost. Now the nutrient rich waters of the Klamath flow downstream where it is impounded by dams forming shallow, warm reservoirs. This creates the perfect condition for the toxic algae Microcystis aeruginosa to bloom creating a serious threat to human health each summer for unsuspecting recreational users. Up to date health warnings and other information on Klamath toxic algae blooms can be found at http://www.kbmp.net/ and https://mywaterquality.ca.gov/habs/data_viewer/

How can we get rid of the toxic algae blooms?

Klamath basin tribes, conservation groups, along with governmental agencies are working to restore wetlands, improve irrigation techniques, and remove dams. All of this activities serve to limit or prevent harmful algal blooms. Detailed information on toxic algae blooms and plans to address the problem can be found here and here.

Are Klamath Dams being removed? Why?

After decades of debate and fact finding, a coalition made up of dam owner PacifiCorp, California, Oregon, local Tribes, conservation groups, fishermen, and counties reached an agreement to remove the lower four Klamath River dams. These dams are known to impair water quality, block fish passage to hundreds of miles of spawning and rearing habitat, and foster toxic algae blooms. On top of that, upgrading the dams to meet modern permit requirements cost more than the power they produce is worth. Pending permit approvals by California and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the dams will be removed in 2021. More information on the dam removal process can be found at http://www.klamathrenewal.org/

Will dam removal mean less water for farming and ranching?

No. The dams targeted for removal do not provide any irrigation or drinking water diversions whatsoever. In fact, by dramatically improving water quality and fish health, dam removal will likely make water sharing between agriculture, fisheries, and wildlife refuges easier.

Will dam removal solve all the Klamath’s problems?

Dam removal is but one part of the collective strategy to reconnect the Klamath. Wetlands restoration, stream restoration projects throughout the basin, and improved water sharing plans are among the other actions necessary to reconnect the Klamath.

What can I do to help Reconnect the Klamath? Where can I find more information?

There are a number of organizations doing great work to reconnect the Klamath through on-the-ground restoration projects, scientific research, and policy advocacy. We feature some of those projects on this website. Links to partners that you can donate time and money can be found here. Our currently featured Action Alert is here.