Here at Reconnect Klamath, we typically highlight the issues, people, and wildlife that are meaningful to communities who live throughout the Klamath Basin. Today’s blog is something a little different: observations from a first-time visitor to the region who toured the stretch of river between Iron Gate Dam and Copco Lake. 

Read on to see what stood out to this newcomer – the good, the bad, and the unique.

Six things that surprised me on my very first visit to the Klamath Basin

For someone who has never visited the Klamath Basin before now, I knew a lot about it before finally getting to visit in September 2023. And yet, I was still surprised by at least six things:

1. So much algae


Algae near the Copco dam sites.

I was shocked by how much algae I saw, and how much it smelled. Much of it is blue-green algae, which is toxic to people, humans, wildlife, and pets. The state has issued a danger warning, advising that no one boat, fish, or swim in Copco Reservoir right now due to the algae. The rocks in Jenny Creek feeding into the reservoir are blue from the algae. And I had to hold my nose much of the time just to keep my lunch down.

Toxic algae is common in reservoirs. It’s much less common in free-flowing rivers. After dam removal, the water will be much cleaner for fish, wildlife, and people.

2. So much beauty

Klamath River and surrounding landscape

The Klamath River landscape

Like many high-desert landscapes, the Klamath Basin is a place of contrasts. Water and dry grasslands. Lush oak savannas and dry conifer forests. Wetlands that are full of water for half the year, and dry as a bone the other half. But the contrast in wetness, color, and geology is breathtaking.

3. A different kind of dam removal project on a different scale than ever before

Elwha River and a background full of trees

The Elwha River post-dam removal. Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons – Jeff Taylor

The growing movement to remove deadbeat dams around the nation – dams both large and small – has shown that dam removal is incredibly successful in restoring water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and local and regional recreational economies. The Klamath dam removal project is the largest to date in the nation. It will restore 400 miles of historical salmon habitat. That’s important because Klamath salmon have been declining for decades. This year, there were no salmon returning during the Yurok Tribe’s salmon festival downstream, and the commercial salmon fishing season was shut down entirely.

The largest dam removal project before this was on the Elwha River, on Washington state’s Olympic peninsula. Years later, and with significant restoration efforts, the valley is thriving. That was one dam, five miles from the ocean, with no communities downstream. This project is four dams, 200 miles from the ocean, with many affected downstream communities. It’s a big project.

4. It’s a man’s world

Okay, maybe this one wasn’t surprising exactly, but there is one woman who works at the Copco dam removal site – a large parking lot of RVs next to Copco powerhouse and Fall Creek, a tributary that feeds into the Klamath River at what is now Copco Reservoir but will soon, again, be a free-flowing Klamath River.

5. Not all of the Klamath River’s dams are being removed

Jenny Creek to Copco reservoir and blue green toxic algae

Toxic algae plagues the area where Jenny Creek runs into Copco Lake. This area will be restored as part of the dam removal project.

I’m cheating a little again because this one was not a surprise.

This dam removal project does not affect irrigators. The dams being removed on the Oregon-California border include Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2, and J.C. Boyle (the only dam to be removed in Oregon). There are two more dams upstream that regulate Upper Klamath Lake levels. Irrigation water for the Klamath Reclamation Project is unaffected by the dam removal effort, although there is speculation that the need for “flushing flows” (which in the past have been released from Upper Klamath Lake to address water quality issues in the river) will likely be reduced or eliminated once the lower four dams are out. In that way, dam removal may increase the potential of available irrigation water in the future.

6. So much algae

Jenny Creek and blue green toxic algae

With water levels low, the bright blue of the algae stands out.

Now I’m really cheating. But there really is so much algae. It’s smelly. It’s toxic. And I dare say no one will miss it.

Natalie Bennon is communications director for Sustainable Northwest, a nonprofit that seeks to restore healthy landscapes for nature, people, and local economies. Sustainable Northwest is one of many advocates of dam removal in the Klamath Basin to help restore historic salmon runs for Tribal fishing and cultural practices, as well as local and regional economies.