On Oct. 30, Alison O’Dowd, professor in the Cal Poly Humboldt Department of Environmental Science and Management and co-director of the River Institute delivered a talk, “River undammed: Exploring biological responses to Klamath dam removal”, as part of the Water Webinar Series — a series of webinars hosted by the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which provides a platform for those studying and working on water to network and learn about current California water issues. There is a lot of exciting new research on the horizon and hopes are high for the future of the Klamath River Basin, but, as O’Dowd went on to explain, with the years of activism leading up to this moment, the road here was neither simple nor short. 

Decades of hard-fought activism of the Yurok and Karuk tribes have borne fruit in the beginnings of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. The first of four dams to be taken down along the Klamath River was successfully removed in June 2023. Researchers across a wide array of fields are already busy collecting data, working together to monitor the progress of the river’s recovery. 

Preliminary results give reasons to be hopeful, and as the Klamath River begins to flow freely again for the first time in over a hundred years, indigenous rights activists and researchers alike are eager to see what happens next. Or, as Alison O’Dowd put it, “A once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch nature recover.” 

The four dams currently being removed were originally owned and operated by PacifiCorp, an American utilities company owned by 93-year-old billionaire and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Energy Company Warren Buffett. During the period in which these dams were being operated, O’Dowd emphasized in her talk that the Yurok, Karuk and other indigenous rights advocates “have been the main players calling for removal for decades.” 

They went so far as traveling to Nebraska and even Scotland to protest outside the corporate headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway and prior dam operator Scottish Power. Indigenous peoples have gone to great lengths in demanding justice for the ecological, economic and cultural damage caused by the destruction of the salmon runs their communities rely upon. 

As public pressure mounted, an opportunity presented itself in the form of PacifiCorp’s license to operate the Klamath dam system expiring in 2004. This expiration initiated a long and hardfought legal battle between PacifiCorp and indigenous rights activists which finally concluded in the Fall of 2020. After 16 years of indigenous-led activism and advocacy, PacifiCorp, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, the indigenous tribes of the Klamath, a number of environmental and fishing organizations and the states of California and Oregon all agreed to cooperate in the process of pulling down the dams, with PacifiCorp contributing around 200 million dollars in funding and the remaining 250 million in funding coming mostly from state taxes and water bonds.  

While the beginnings of dam deconstruction are a major environmental and cultural victory for the Yurok and Karuk peoples, there is still much work to be done, O’Dowd emphasized, citing the closure of all major fisheries along the Klamath in 2023 due to critical population numbers. The need for thorough investigation and widespread collaboration is as urgent now as it has ever been.
O’Dowd explains that she got involved in studying the Klamath in February 2020 when a two-day workshop was held allowing experts from across a vast variety of fields to aggregate their findings and organize future collaborations. 

On the first day of the workshop, the major takeaways for O’Dowd were from the opportunity to hear from a professor who had worked on a similar dam removal project along the Elwha River, able to use their experience to offer some insight on the question of what to expect after all four dams are gone. 

In the case of the Elwha project, it was explained that while it holds some important differences with the Klamath, the most important of which being sheer scale, one thing that was reasonable to expect along the Klamath based on the results of the Elwha was a substantial increase in sediment transport. 

Sediment transport is a vital function of any stream due to its role in maintaining and building stable habitats for various aquatic and terrestrial animals and in countering the forces of coastal erosion.  

In the case of the Elwha, a great deal of sediment had built up behind dams causing extensive habitat construction for a number of species. The Elwha also observed significant population recoveries in fisheries and a greater diversity of species being seen further upstream. Overall, the results of the Elwha Dam removal prove very promising for the future of the Klamath River.

On the second day of the workshop, a focus group day, O’Dowd met and built a research team.  Their broad objective is to investigate and monitor a number of ecological indicators along the Klamath River. They have picked out four research sites that should allow the team to observe the impacts of the increase in sediment on the ecosystem over a period of five years, 2022 to 2027. This span of time allows the team to analyze and compare conditions before and after dam removal.

O’Dowd and her colleagues are hoping to track a number of factors over the 5-year period, ranging from her own focus on aquatic invertebrate activity, to water quality, to fish dietary health — all in the interest of carefully tracking the recovery progress of the Klamath River.

O’Dowd has since run a workshop of her own, in the hope of facilitating the same interdisciplinary collaboration that brought her here in the first place. In closing her talk, O’Dowd cited one of the most important lessons she learned from the Elwha team was the importance of reaching across the lines of discipline and specialization, allowing the vast amount of coordination necessary for a project of this scale to take place. “Collaborate until it hurts.”  

While work is ongoing, O’Dowd stressed the importance in any scientific project of expecting the unexpected. Hopes are high for the future of the Klamath. 

A version of this article appeared on p. 9 of the Nov. 9, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.