Reservoir Drawdown Begins at Iron Gate Dam on Klamath River as Dam Removal Goes Forward!

Photo courtesy of Regina Chichizola, Save California Salmon. | 

By Dan Bacher | 

In a historic event last week (Jan. 11), the Klamath River Renewal Corporation (KRRC) began the long-anticipated drawdown of three reservoirs by opening the low-level outlet tunnel in Iron Gate Dam.

The dam removal process is the largest in U.S. history — and will open hundreds of miles of the Klamath and its tributaries to salmon and steelhead after over 100 years of being confined to the river below the dam.

As a journalist who has written hundreds of articles on the Klamath River and spent many hours fishing for steelhead and salmon on the river over the years, as well as fishing for yellow perch in Iron Gate Reservoir, I am thrilled to see the dam removal in progress. 

Although I won’t be able to go on any perch fishing adventures on Iron Gate Reservoir anymore, we will soon be to witness to a river reborn and the return of Chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead to the upper river and its tributaries:

“Witnessing the beginning of drawdown at Iron Gate Dam was both celebration of an important moment in the story of Klamath dam removal, and a source of pride for the exceptional work done by so many people to arrive at this day,” said Mark Bransom, CEO of KRRC, upon announcing the opening of the tunnel.

Drawdown refers to the slow draining of the water in the reservoirs, which will be lowered in a controlled manner through tunnels located at the base of the dams, according to Bransom. Drawdown of the JC Boyle and Copco Reservoirs will begin later this month, while all the reservoirs are expected to be drained by the end of February.

“Communities downstream of the dams will start to see changes in the river in the coming days, as sediment that has accumulated behind the dams is evacuated downstream,” Bransom stated. “There is an estimated 17-20 million cubic yards of sediment behind Iron Gate, JC Boyle, and Copco No. 1, the three remaining Klamath dams slated for removal.”

During the drawdown process, 5-7 million cubic yards is expected to go downstream during the initial phase of drawdown in January and February.

“Extensive testing done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and KRRC consultants has determined the sediment to be non-toxic, mostly consisting of dead algae, gravels, and fine clay particulates,” said Bransom.

Unlike at other dam removals like on the Carmel River in California and the Elqua in Oregon, there will be no blasting at Iron Gate.

“Iron Gate’s drawdown strategy is different than what people may have seen in the past with other dam removals,” noted Bransom. “There was no blast at this dam, instead we had the opportunity to use existing infrastructure, which allows us to precisely control the volume of water going downriver, limiting downstream impacts.”

Bransom said the initial drawdown period was carefully selected by KRRC’s Aquatic Resources Working Group, comprised of Tribes, and state and federal agencies. He said January and February are the “ideal months for this process,” as there are the fewest threatened and endangered species in the mainstem, and winter flows will assist with sediment evacuation.  

“While the initial phase of drawdown is expected to be completed sometime in February, because the reservoirs will be drained so slowly, they may refill a bit with spring run-off, and then need to drain again. Water quality is expected to improve in March, after the initial phase of drawdown is complete, but it will likely take up to 24 months for water to return to usual clarity, following the successful establishment of vegetation in the former reservoir footprint areas,” Bransom continued.

Work on the deconstruction of the dams is expected to commence sometime in May or June of 2024 depending on the weather, and be complete by Fall, 2024, according to KRRC.

Yesterday afternoon, a group of Yurok tribal leaders and staff were at Iron Gate Dam to celebrate releasing the water from behind the reservoirs.

“KRRC took the Yurok representatives to see water flowing swiftly from the base of Iron Gate. Drawdown is one of the final stages before the remaining three dams are removed,” according to a statement from the Yurok Tribe.

“The Klamath dams will never kill another salmon,” said Yurok Fisheries Department Director Barry McCovey Jr.

“For more than two decades, Klamath Basin tribes, conservation groups and salmon fishers have advocated for the removal of four dams on the Klamath River,” the Tribe said. “The first dam was dismantled last summer and Copco No. 1, JC Boyle and Iron Gate will be removed before the end of the year, when the Klamath will flow free for the first time in more than a century. It is the most ambitious salmon restoration project in world history.“ 

The Yurok Fisheries Department and Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation, contracted by Resource Environmental Solutions, will be deeply involved in the post dam removal restoration of the 38-mile reservoir reach, the Tribe noted.  

“Over the next two months, water, sediment and dead algae will drain from the reservoirs. There will be a visible change in water clarity, but most of the material will flow out into the ocean,” the Tribe advised.

Grassroots river activists who led the decades-long battle to remove the Klamath Dams reflected on the significance of yesterday as they witnessed the drawdown of Iron Gate Dam. 

“It took generations and years of struggle to get these Klamath Dams removed,” said Stormi Salamander, videographer, photographer and activist. “What a joyous day to witness the beginning of reservoir drawdown before the removal of the last three dams. We laughed on the ride up at how different it felt to be on the way to a dam removal tour rather than a protest or hearing or meeting or rally or plane flight or bus ride or direct action.”

Annelia Hillman, Yurok Tribe member, artist and activist, on seeing the water rushing downstream after the opening of the low-level outlet tunnel in Iron Gate Dam, reflected on the event in a poem:

There’s something in the song
of water flowing free
It’s like the sound you hear before you birth
Life emerging from the earth
It’s like a heavy song
The way we start to heal
It’s like our ancestors crying out “aiy ye kwee”
Greeting our descendants
In a world we do not see 

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