The salmon are going home

Dams are not forever – but neither are salmon, if the dams block their path home. So increasingly in the United States and in Europe, as people realize that rivers their grandparents once fished for food are now almost empty, dams installed to generate power are being removed so the salmon can return home.

The Klamath River, which runs from Oregon into northern California, teemed with millions of chinook salmon until huge dams blocked them from their upstream spawning grounds; only 46,000 migrated successfully in 2020. The story is similar in the United Kingdom, where recent reports have shown that the UK’s once abundant native salmon population has collapsed, and in Europe, where migratory fish populations have declined 93% over the last 50 years.

In the US, four large dams are being torn down in what is called the world’s largest dam removal project, and the world’s largest salmon restoration project. On March 10, 2023, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation broke ground on removal activities for the dams. By September 2023, the first and smallest dam, Copco #2, will be removed. In January 2024, drawdown of the reservoirs will begin and all four dams will be gone by the end of 2024. Restoration work will continue well beyond 2024.

A phenomenal film by Swiftwater Films in partnership with Resource Environmental Solutions, from March 2023, gives a sense of the scale and complexity of the work as a whole. And this earlier equally inspiring film by Swiftwater Films and American Rivers from December 2020, shows the importance of the rivers to the local Indigenous people and the ecosystem.

“For the tribes and for the Yurok, it’s the beginning of healing. We remove those dams, the river runs free, and the salmon can go home,” says Amy Cordalis, a legal adviser to the Yurok Tribe, of which she is a member.

Before Klamath, the Elwha was the largest dam removal in US history. In 1992, the US Congress authorized its removal and after two decades of planning, work began in mid-September 2011. Six months later the Elwha Dam was gone, followed by the Glines Canyon Dam in 2014. Now the Elwha River once again flows freely from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and lessons learned from its removal are informing the Klamath project, too.

“The Elwha River is transitioning from its dam-bound era to a river wild and free,” says the National Parks Service. “The river was significantly altered by the dams, and biologists predict that it will take at least a generation—if not more—to recover. Scientists are continuously watching, measuring, monitoring and evaluating changes in an effort to better understand the mechanisms of river evolution. It is rare to get to watch a river reborn, and what we learn from the Elwha River Restoration Project will help to inform future dam removal projects and restoration strategies.”

As the Elwha reservoirs were drawn down, a wasteland of mud and tree stumps was revealed. But now, thanks to deliberate planting and natural repopulation, alder and cottonwood trees line the new riverbank, with lupines, berries, roses and a host of other plants nestled among them.

Planning for the revegetation of the Klamath River has been going on since 2019. RES recruited and trained crews from area tribes to collect the 19 billion native seeds needed, and partnered with commercial nurseries to propagate plants and seeds. They will plant 96 different species: culturally significant plants like yampah and lomatium, important pollinator species like milkweed, and tens of thousands of oak trees – in all, 250,000 trees and shrubs using 40,000 to 60,000 pounds of seed.

Joshua Chenoweth, who helped lead the revegation effort at the Elwha, is leading the replanting effort at the Klamath, too. The Yurok tribe recruited him from Port Angeles after they toured the Elwha site, and the pull to lead an even larger revegetation was irresistible. “Here was a whole new landscape to learn about, and try to apply lessons learned to a new project and advance the science of revegetating reservoirs after a dam removal project.”

In 2022, the largest river barrier removal in the UK took out the three-meter-high Bowston Weir, which had blocked the Kent River for 150 years. It integrates the ambitious Cumbria River Restoration program, which is removing blockages on the Kent, Eden and Derwent rivers and got a big boost after people saw that the earlier projects had cut flood risk and meant farmland dried more quickly

In France, the removal of a 17-metre high dam “La Roche qui boit” on the historic Sélune salmon river means that this past spring, salmon could swim upriver from the Baie Saint Michel, restoring the river’s ecological continuity after a century. The campaign for a free Sélune lasted 20 years, led by associations including ERN, the French Fishing Federation, FNE and others. It is one of more than 6,000 dams removed from European rivers, says Dam Removal Europe.


Klamath Dam Removal: It’s Happening. Caltrout, Mar. 31, 2023

Restoration and current research. National Parks Service. Oct. 2, 2019

After the dams: Restoring the Klamath River will take billions of native seeds. OPB, Mar. 20, 2023

6 things you need to know about the Klamath River dam removals. American Rivers, Jun. 23, 2023

La Roche-Qui-Boit Dam Removal. European Rivers Network.

Jeremy Wade celebrates Bowston Weir removal! Dam Removal Europe, Oct. 14, 2022

Cover image: After a journey of more than 250 miles the Klamath River reaches the ocean. NPS Photo / Steven Krause