A plan to remove four dams – one of the most ambitious river restoration projects ever attempted – is either mocked or praised depending on the audience. It will expand salmon habitat or destroy a fishery. The only certainty is that lives will change forever.

The Klamath is an upside down river.

It starts in a valley and ends in the mountains. Water temperatures at its source are warmer than when it meets the Pacific Ocean 257 miles away. It begins as a chemical stew and terminates teeming with life. It is the second largest river in California. And now one of the most controversial.

A plan to remove four dams – one of the most ambitious river restoration projects ever attempted – is either mocked or praised depending on the audience. It will expand salmon habitat or destroy a fishery. The only certainty is that lives will change forever.

So goes the Klamath. Beautiful and fascinating yet divisive and troubled. Algae blooms in summer make portions of the river unsafe for swimming. Warning signs are posted. Other parts remain breathtaking and unpredictable, unchanged for thousands of years. Half agricultural lifeline, half wild and scenic watershed. Two different rivers.

Breaking point

For the people who live along its shores finding common ground has proven elusive. Sometimes there is just not enough Klamath to go around.

The first breaking point was the summer of 2001. It is one of the most famous photos of the era. Angry farmers in Klamath Falls, Oregon, used crowbars to pry off government locks and open the irrigation lines to the “A” Canal, which ran through the center of town and supplied water to 1,400 farms and ranches. It was shut down to protect endangered fish.

Local authorities chose not to interfere claiming a lack of jurisdiction. These were the friends and neighbors after all struggling to feed their families. Armed U.S. Marshals were brought in to restore order. Crops withered in the field.

The following year after a second straight drought no such protest was needed. The federal government intervened making sure enough water was diverted to help farmers feed livestock and save their crops’ root structure.

Two months later, 34,000 fish died downstream, according to government records. Official cause of death was gill rot disease. Locals say they will never forget the smell. It was a tumultuous time. A river that gave life could also take it away. Two bookends to the Klamath equally devastated. Some farmers never recovered.

“These were really good people who didn’t deserve what happened to them,” said Dan Keppen, former executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. “Nothing like that had ever been done before. There had never been a reclamation project in the West that had completely curtailed supplies to the people it was intended to serve.”

While the financial cost could be measured by lost crops and plummeting real estate prices, the human toll was more difficult to assess. Cases of domestic violence increased. School enrollment dropped as families moved away. Farmers and ranchers who had once been promised “water for life” were left with a flood of uncertainty.

“It was difficult to see the impact on families,” Keppen said. “There was a (local) pharmacist who said his prescriptions for dealing with depression were 50 percent higher that summer.”

Keppen is now head of the Family Farm Alliance, an organization that represents water rights in 17 western states. He remains optimistic an agreement can eventually be reached. Former adversaries are now collaborators. Yurok tribal members from the mouth of the Klamath have visited potato farmers in southern Oregon.

“In order to have a true solution everybody is going to have to give up something,” he said, “and that means coming up with some sort of agreement about how water can be shared for the benefit of the entire watershed.”

It depends on the ocean

Even that may not be enough. Any agreement would need approval from the federal government. An effort nine years ago that brought together 42 different entities died in a Congressional committee.

That lack of local control forms a bedrock of the State of Jefferson, a plan dating back to 1941 by several counties in northern California and southern Oregon to secede and form a 51st state.

The dams are owned by PacifiCorp, based in Portland, Oregon, and require periodic relicensing from federal energy officials because they provide hydroelectric power. As part of the relicensing process environmental standards must be met and, simply put, it is cheaper to remove the earthen and concrete structures than bring them up to code.

Bob Rice is the former Superintendent for the Klamath National Forest, which is the fifth largest in the Unites States and among the most complex. He somehow talked his wife, Charlotte, into moving on 14 separate occasions. “Every time we moved it was to a better place,” she points out cheerfully. Their three children might argue for Duluth, Minn. They now live in Yreka.

In his 33 years on the Klamath, Rice said has covered every inch of the river whether on foot, horseback, boat or helicopter. He relishes the thought of having $450 million budget, which is the current price tag for the removal of the J.C. Boyle Dam in Oregon and the Copco 1, Copco 2 and Iron Gate dams in California.

One of the first things he would do instead of removing the dams is put a water treatment plant upstream of where the Klamath passes from Oregon into California. He says that will help solve the algae problem. After that he would raise the level of Iron Gate Dam by 20 feet. More water means more watershed management options.

“We have to do something about the restoration of the aquifer,” he said. “We can do that by making more water available.”

And then there are the Coho salmon, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the driving force that spawned the dam removal plan in the first place.

The further up the Klamath salmon swim the warmer and more inhospitable the water becomes, Rice said. Among the scores of tributaries in the lower half of the Klamath is the appropriately named Salmon River, which gushes in cold and clear. At that point the Coho are already more than halfway through their estimated migratory range of 150 miles and the gas light is about to come on.

Rice insists few salmon would go any further upstream than the Shasta River in Siskiyou County, below the dams. He also focuses on something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

“The ocean basically determines what happens to the Klamath,” he said. “The activity that happens in the ocean determines the water temperature of the ocean, which in turn determines the population of the fish, the makeup of the fish, the size of the fish and how much water comes into the springs and then seeps into the Klamath River.”

‘I’m not going to let it happen’

But for many people the Klamath is about more than fish. The stakes are high. The removal of the dams also means draining the reservoirs the dams create.

During the Klamathon Fire last summer Chrissie Reynolds watched a parade of helicopters scoop water from Copco Lake behind her house. The hillside across from her burned. A study by the California Policy Institute predicts that wildfires will only worsen in Northern California by the year 2050.

“Every year (helicopters) are dipping out of the reservoirs,” Reynolds said. “It has saved thousands of acres of land and countless lives of both people and animals.”

Reynolds is also particularly sensitive to the government coming in and taking everything away. Her parents were Americans of Japanese descent and sent to an internment camp at Topaz, Utah, during World War II.

Like most people, Reynolds said the river gives her a strong connection to nature. On a late June afternoon as the wind picks up and white pelicans glide by with tugboat-sized beaks, she becomes choked up at the thought of everything being gone.

“I am not going to let it happen,” she said. “I will be at the railroad tracks blocking the road. They are not taking my water.”

But what she fears most if the dams are removed is the loss of community. She knows which neighbor has Parkinson’s disease and would be unable to evacuate. She points out where two of the town’s six fire hydrants are located. There is an uncertain real estate market.

“When you live in a rural area you are the firefighters. You are the first responders. You are responsible for your neighbors. It’s the real deal,” she said. “Maybe you can walk away in the city but out here you have an obligation. We are all dependent on each other.”

Crawdads no more

As the Klamath begins its transition from arid to montane it also becomes more remote. Parts are downright dangerous. Visitors to Happy Camp are warned to be gone before dark. Not a threat. Just a fact.

It was not always that way.

Glen Briggs and the Klamath go back 87 years. It has always been a part of his life filling him with a sense of calmness and a way to “get yourself pulled together.” His family first moved to the area during the Civil War. His father ran a saw mill. He now lives outside Seiad Valley just past Thompson Creek on a bluff above the river.

Growing up, Briggs and his sister were the only white kids at the local elementary school. They never viewed the Native Americans as being different.

“We would all play together,” he said. “There was no thinking about nationality. It never came up.”

Things began to change in the 1970s.

“The people who moved up here in the past 50 years moved up here to hide,” he said. “They wanted to escape civilization.”

Crime increased. Drug use escalated. People began locking their doors at night. More importantly, the newcomers had no connection to the river. And then suddenly the Klamath was in play. Who would the stakeholders be? Positions hardened. The same river that once united people now forced them to take sides.

“The river has gone through a lot of changes,” Briggs said. He worries about what will happen if the dams are removed. “It is going to cause the people who rely on the river for resources to suffer.”

Briggs also sees the Klamath as something larger than a single watershed. It starts with the earth’s plate tectonics, which created the Cascade Mountains.

“The river’s geologic history is tremendously interesting,” he said. “It is not a big river but it is an unusual river. It is the only one that comes through the Cascades except for the Columbia River. You also don’t have any rivers that originate east of the Sierra that come through to the coast. They all go south.”

Predicting nature is always a tricky science, Briggs added. Before the dams went in families would often gather along the river banks in the fall to feast on red crawdads.

“They would catch them as they came upstream,” he said. “They would boil them in big pots and have a picnic … but they disappeared after the dams were built.”

An enigma

It is part of what makes the Klamath post-dam such an enigma. The river passes through unquestionably unique landscapes. An estimated 21 species of Conifer dot its banks through the Marble Mountains, unparalleled anywhere in the world.

The interaction with nature it is was what first attracted Darin McQuoid to the river. He grew up in Etna in the heart of Scott Valley. The son of a well driller. Born from still waters.

He first started spending time on the Klamath as a river guide. One day a friend let him borrow a kayak. He took to it like a fish to water. No river remained safe. Among his accomplishments are the Indus River through Pakistan’s Rondu Gorge and the Rio Piaxla in Mexico.

“There is something magical about traveling down a river,” he once wrote. “No matter what class of water, making the journey is always a special experience.”

It gives him a worldly perspective on the Klamath.

“There are clean, cold rivers and those are nice,” he said. “The Klamath is warm, which is nice in its own regard because you don’t need as much gear.”

He said while water quality is important it is not “critical to making a river worth doing.”

“For California it also has an unusual gradient,” he added. “Most rivers of that steepness and size are under a lake at this point or completely dewatered.”

The potential removal of the dams leaves him with mixed feelings. For one thing they regulate river flow, which is important to the rafting industry.

“You can go any day and you know what the flow is going to be. You know it is going to be runnable,” he said. “You are also not looking at a brief season.”

On the other hand, if the dams are removed, he said the Klamath would immediately benefit.

“It is incredible how quickly a river can recover,” he said. “Look at what happened on the Sacramento (at Cantara Loop). They said it would take 10 years ... and the next year it was already better.”

Can a river be owned?

It is said a man can walk across Upper Klamath Lake – the second-largest freshwater reserve in Oregon and the headwaters of the Klamath – and never get his hat wet. Women are apparently smarter when it comes to this issue.

Such a journey would require immersing one’s body during much of the year and especially in summer in microcystin, a bacterium formed by blue-green algae that is a toxin known to cause liver damage in humans. The reasons are varied but are mostly manmade.

Upper Klamath Lake was artificially formed by draining swampland in the area and creating farms in the second largest Bureau of Land Reclamation on record. At its deepest point the lake reaches a depth of maybe 12 feet. Eventually seven dams, 18 canals, 45 pumping plants and 516 miles of irrigation ditches were built.

Veterans of both World Wars were promised land and plenty of water if they would relocate to the area and become farmers. Crops included alfalfa, potatoes and onions.

For farming the system was brilliant. Water was continually pumped and recycled. For the environment it was a disaster. Water quality disintegrated over time due to a combination pesticides, fertilizers and livestock waste in the watershed that became known as “chemigation.” The Klamath Basin is also part of the Pacific Flyway and every year millions of birds pass through the area. Throw in naturally occurring phosphorous in the soil and Houston we have a problem.

It is what first triggered the idea of unwinding human intervention on the Klamath and eventually restoring the health of the river. The first big piece of that puzzle for many people is to remove the dams.

Yadao Inong is a technician with Yurok Tribal Fisheries. At the age of 5 he could navigate a row boat on the Lower Klamath. By the time he attended Humboldt State University the currents that would eventually shape his life were already taking form.

He wrote a paper called “Being a Person of Place.”

“I can trace my roots and know that my great, great, grandfather walked this same trail or caught fish in the same hole,” he said. “The rocks that are there. Some of them move and some of them have been there forever.”

He said removing the dams is “everything in our part of the world.” Salmon are extended family, “our brothers and sisters.”

“That is why we fight so hard to protect it now because the river has sustained us for thousands upon thousands of years,” he said. “If we don’t step up and continue to step up and do what we are doing now, people will be the end of salmon.”

There are also things that can’t be quantified, like whether a river can ever be owned and does it have a soul.

“The river has been here for millions of years. How can you own something that precedes you? The time that the dinosaurs came and went is but a speck in the time that river has been here,” he said. “The collective life that is here matters and it always has.”

Inong has spent his whole life in the outdoors whether it involves hunting, planting trees or teaching kids to fly fish. He said there is nothing like the jolt of energy from hooking into a wild steelhead just returned from the ocean.

He added that removing the dams involves more than just increasing the size of the existing habitat. Genetic diversity is critical.

“The first dam is not all that far up the river,” he said. “If you have a fish designed to spawn 200 miles from the ocean, and then you put a big fat barrier at 100 miles, they are going to spawn on top of other fish that are only supposed to go that far. You get hybridization. You get springers in the fall run. It would not happen if you give fish a choice.”

Heritage and culture

Further downstream in the tiny town of Klamath, where the river meets the sea, the afternoon breeze begins to pick up just as it does at the same time of day across Copco Lake and at the headwaters in Klamath Falls. It is September now and the excitement is building.

King salmon are schooling offshore and as the fog rolls in so are expectations that the fish will soon follow. What is holding them back is anybody’s guess. Perhaps it is the rough surf. Maybe it is the weather. It is a good problem to have.

“We have not fished for three years,” said Paul Van Mechelen, generally regarded as one of the best fishermen in town. When asked if this is true, he shrugs and says, “My Grandma said I have fish blood.” He also serves as unofficial mayor and general goodwill ambassador. Nobody goes hungry when Paul is around.

Like most fishermen he lowers his voice as he reveals his secrets. When the dogwood in his yard blooms he knows the sturgeon are on their way. Lately, everything is being pushed back.

“The (king salmon) used to run the second week of August,” he said, “but now it is the third week of September.”

Before the dams and especially the flood of 1964, the town of Klamath was a world-renowned fishery. On a single day an estimated 1,300 fish were once caught. Parts of the river became known as “Suicide Run.” Then the entire town was washed away in a single devastating rush of water one winter and with it went a sense of unlimited resources. More than salmon were at stake. There are other fish in the river.

As Van Mechelen speaks, he barbecues salmon on redwood skewers around an alder fire. He dreamed about sturgeon one night and realized that traditional fishing practices would no longer work.

“I knew we had to stop it,” he said. Sturgeon can live for more than 50 years and the females do not lay eggs annually. Wholesale slaughter of the fish “where the river turned red from all the blood” had to end.

“You have got to think of the resource,” he said. “Anything over six feet you have got to let go.” To enforce the new rules Van Mechelen said “we either had to make the fines bigger or take your truck away.”

But at the local bookstore in town, Alice Cook said focusing on the dams alone does a disservice to the complex nature of the river’s ecosystem. Seals are massing on the beach waiting like everyone else for the salmon to migrate. Illegal pot farms upstream leech chemicals into the water supply.

A poster on the wall of the store reads: “If you don’t forget your ancestors, your heritage and your culture, you’ll never be led astray.”

“There is no question removing the dams will help,” Cook said. “But is going to solve all our problems? I doubt it.”

A river runs through them

In his famous fly fishing novel author Norman Mclean once wrote about his beloved Blackfoot River near Missoula, Montana: “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

Perhaps the same is true with the Klamath. The people who live there all share something in common: The river that runs through them.