The following appears in the October issue of California Sportsman:
By Chris Cocoles
The obstacles in the way of anadromous fish returning to Northern California’s rivers to spawn have included everything from overfishing to the threat from invasive species to drought-like conditions that have created dangerously warm water temperatures and low flows.
But on the Eel and Klamath Rivers, two of the gems of the North Coast, the upstream journeys of salmon and steelhead have been further hindered by man-made hurdles, which literally are stopping fish dead in their tracks.
But now, even with invasive pikeminnows finding quick meals in the form of salmon and steelhead smolts on the Eel, and Klamath salmon enduring both debris flows from nearby wildfires and disease dieoffs in the lower river, some light may be appearing at the end of the tunnel – or at least at the foot of dams sprinkled across the two watersheds.
After nearly two decades of fights, it appears that the removal of four Klamath River dams in California and Oregon could start by early 2023, and further south on the Eel, progress is being made toward the desperately needed tearing down of two dams, though legal issues will complicate the process and has the plan on hiatus.
This is where the hard work of many state agencies, tribal organizations and conservation groups like California Trout comes in. They have collaborated for years on continuing to push and push back on resistance from power and water companies, water users and agricultural interests. Redgie Collins, CalTrout’s legal and policy director, was asked about the importance of tirelessly pursuing dam removals on these rivers.
“We ask ourselves that all the time when we look at the hours of the strategic planning process as an organization. The money that goes into this, the time and effort that goes into dam removals,” he says. “And I think the core reason that we do this is that restoring them to full potential, where we can have that opportunity, is absolutely essential to life function. The ecological importance of having a free-flowing river and restoring those ecological processes is essential to everything that CalTrout does.”
“Barrier removal is one of our core strategic initiatives in our planning process, and you see this reflected with the largest environmental funders. You see foundations promoting dam removal throughout the country. And because of this you’re seeing a huge uptick in removals.”
And that’s a welcome sight to behold, especially for the fish and those who fight to preserve them.
THAT DAM PROBLEM
In a 2020 report, National Geographic wrote that America contained some 91,000 dams.
“Roughly 15,500 of them could cause fatalities if they failed, according to the National Inventory of Dams. Most of these dams were built many decades ago,” the story says. “By 2025, 70 percent of them will be more than a half century old, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.”
Removing dams has been a slow task. In 2021, American Rivers reported that 1,797 dams had been removed in the United States since 1912. And while 69 were removed during the Covid-affected year of 2020, American Rivers says the nation still contains about 90,000 dams blocking rivers. “Dams harm fish and wildlife habitat and ecosystem health and can pose safety risks to communities,” the report adds.
The Klamath removal project involves the Iron Gate Dam in Siskiyou County – the first obstacle for the river’s anadromous fish – and three more dams further upstream: Copco No. 1 and Copco No. 2 in California, and J.C. Boyle Dam across the border in Oregon.
There are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic as the trend of opening up more watersheds increases.
“The history of removals throughout the United States has trickled up from nothing until you hit about the 1980s,” Collins says. “It’s now starting to look like a strong trend towards removal. You’ve seen hundreds of removals in the past five or so years throughout the country.”
That’s music to the ears of conservation organizations such as CalTrout, which Collins calls a leader in barrier removal in the state.
There are also parallels to what’s gone on for two decades in the fight for opening up the Klamath and the more recent progress to take out the Eel’s Potter Valley Project’s Scott and Cape Horn Dams. Particularly inspiring for Collins has been the tribal groups that have been critical supporters of the dam removals.
“These are watersheds that have severely impacted them, and there is a cultural importance of salmon and steelhead,” Collins says of the tribes who for generations have relied on these rivers.
The Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Tribes all have stakes in what happens in the Klamath watershed. And on the Eel, the Round Valley Indian Tribes and Wiyot Tribes are among the most crucial stakeholders in the fight to restore that river.
Collins thinks these projects “represent the real chance to continue to evolve as a state.”
“That river is not only important as an ecological system, but in certain cases it’s being looked at as a central part of that culture. It’s not just a river but a living, breathing entity within their culture,” he says. “But when
I talk to those folks it goes beyond (that). Overall these projects represent the real chance to continue to evolve as a state while providing clear, cold water and unblocked systems.”
To Collins, removing the dams in both watersheds is a “win-win” proposition.
RESCUING A RIVER
The Eel is more than it appears. Sure, it’s a beautiful river that winds its way through five counties over 196 miles – it’s the third longest watershed entirely within the state of California – before flowing into the Pacific just west of the Humboldt County community of Fortuna.
These are waters that powered the local economy – commercial (as well as recreational) fishing, logging and other industries – in the late 19th century. But that excess would eventually be too much for the mighty Eel.
Filmmaker Shane Anderson captured the Eel’s worth in his beautiful 2017 documentary, A River’s Last Chance (California Sportsman, September 2018). “It was always an extremely productive and abundant place prior to the arrival of the colonial world; just so productive on its own before we killed it,” Anderson said back in 2018.
While the salmon runs may never return to their once-plentiful state, the Potter Valley Project dam removal would go a long way to getting back some of what once was here.
Darren Mierau, CalTrout’s North Coast regional director, is a front man on the Eel River dam removal, which has hit a snag due to the Potter Valley Project’s overseer, massive California electric company Pacific Gas and Electric. CalTrout has led a lawsuit against the company.
In 1907 Cape Horn Dam formed Van Arsdale Reservoir, and 12 miles upstream along the Eel, Lake Pillsbury is the result of the 1921 construction of Scott Dam. In total, the dams have blocked 288 miles of passage for migrating salmon and steelhead.
“We’re very confident (dam removal) will get done. It’s just a big thing – big infrastructure. It’s a complicated system with the shared water with the Russian River. There are stakeholders who are dependent on the lake and the reservoir for recreation,” Mierau says. “There’s a split amongst the watersheds. There’s a huge price tag to pay from somebody. So it’s a complicated thing. It’s as much infrastructure update as it is conservation action. It just has a lot of elements to it. So it takes time.”
“All of our conservation organizations are working together trying to orchestrate a pressure campaign to push it forward as quickly as we can. We’re confident that the path forward is going to eventually lead to dam removal. It’s just a matter of what the path is going to look like and how long is it going to take.”
Meanwhile, salmon and steelhead not only continue to face blocked waters, but also a damaging predatory neighbor that’s being anything but neighborly to them.
THE INVASIVE PEST
Pikeminnows were introduced to the Eel River drainage in the late 1970s, ironically around the Potter Valley Project location and the two dams. It took about a decade for the fish to really start taking a toll on the anadromous fish of the system.
“It took them a while to spread throughout the rest of the basin. They’re still doing that. (Bureau of Land Management) is tracking pikeminnow incursion into parts of the North Fork Eel River that they’re currently not in,” Mireau says. “They’re making their way above barriers, and once they get enough fish up there and can survive and get a population going, they’ll spread up there. So they’re continuing to spread throughout. They’ve been in the South Fork since I was in grad school in the mid-1990s and we did studies on the pikeminnow around the Garberville area.”
Mireau finds that the pikeminnow strain on salmon and steelhead has multiple levels. Of course, these invasive fish are predators that feed on young salmonids. But there’s more to their destruction of the anadromous residents of the Eel.
“The juvenile pikeminnow competitively displaced the juvenile salmon and steelhead. There’s a lot of habitat utilization by the juveniles that are trying to eat and rear alongside literally swarms of thousands of baby pikeminnow,” Mireau says. “A couple different levels of impact. We’re sort of tearing those apart now, but it’s becoming more apparent as to how damaging they are to salmon and steelhead populations.”
And then there are the dams adding to the stress these precious fish are up against.
CAUGHT BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
“I would say quite a bit,” was Mireau’s take on the stress and destruction that the two dams making up the Potter Valley Project have inflicted on salmon and steelhead.
Fish counts that date back several decades paint a sobering picture about the number of fish the Eel has produced. Mireau points out that despite a modest rebound on the Eel in the early 2000s, when water flows were increased, most of the returns have been dismal for kings and steelhead.
Coho, once abundant in the watershed, aren’t even being counted towards recovery from the Potter Valley Project since the fish aren’t even making their way to the Van Arsdale Fish Station water diversion tunnel at Cape Horn Dam.
The two dams have all but eliminated the summer steelhead population, though Mierau says the run “still persists genetically in the upper watershed, but it has no anadromy right now. There’s no adult population because the dam blocks access to the habitat they need.”
“The fish that get into the project itself – in between the two dams – and they’re trapped there because they stay in the cold water that’s released from the dams until it’s too late for them to make it out. So it’s what we call an ecological trap,” Mireau says. “In addition, the cold water has been shown to attract fish from other tributaries like Tomki Creek that comes right below Cape Horn Dam. For a while it had a pretty abundant run, and it’s been decimated now. It’s attracted fish but hasn’t produced any out of that. We’re getting literally on the order of a couple hundred fish in a major portion of the basin. It’s just pathetic.”
PG&E, which provides natural gas and electricity for 5.2 million California households, has run the Potter Valley Project, which according to its relicensing website (pottervalleyproject .org) – under the jurisdiction of U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman’s (D) Ad Hoc Committee – “stores winter runoff from the upper Eel River basin and annually diverts an average of 90,000 acre-feet of Eel River water into the Russian River to generate hydroelectric power.”
On April 18, a CalTrout press release announced it was joining four other litigants – Friends of the Eel River, Trout Unlimited, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources – in a lawsuit challenging PG&E’s managing of the Potter Valley Project.
“More specifically, Cape Horn Dam Fish Ladder is inoperable during high flows in the winter months, which is exactly when there’s the most salmon and steelhead moving through that system – they close the gates of that fish ladder, functionally blocking all migration upstream,” Collins says. “And then beyond that, the way the fish ladder operates now, it essentially gives predators at the bottom – both bass and pikeminnow and otters – a buffet line of juvenile and adult salmon moving into the system, as well as steelhead.”
Collins adds that PG&E has moved into a surrender process, which essentially takes away the company’s licensing processes within the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses dams throughout the country. That would take away that protection.
“We submitted a 60-day notice to PG&E stating that very clearly their project operation kills fish. It also harms and harasses salmon through their migratory paths. And in order to fix that problem, we’re asking PG&E to do a couple things,” Collins says. “The first piece is to listen to the federal licensing agency, listen to the National Marine Fisheries Service and their concerns around the project. They gave eight individual interim protective measures that in their minds would help alleviate the predation and allow for migratory passage for salmon and steelhead. But beyond that, we’re really looking for PG&E to take a leadership role and move the process toward dam removal. We think that that’s the only realistic result for this project.”
KLAMATH REMOVAL IS IMMINENT
Further north, the mighty Klamath’s four dams spanning Northern California into Oregon block another 300 miles of potential salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat, but that may soon change.
“It’s been really central to CalTrout’s work for the last 20 years. And I know that our executive director (Curtis Knight) started as a regional director up in Mount Shasta and attended the first meeting for what is now and what will be the largest dam removal in the history of the world,” Collins says. “It’s a real marker, not just for our organization but for everyone who has been pushing for barrier removal in the United States.” It’s been a long haul, but the checkered flag is in sight. Earlier this year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its draft Environmental Impact Statement supporting the removal of the four dams. When the final report was made public in late August, the abstract’s language was music to the ears of all those who have fought for the dams coming down.
“Project removal and implementation of mitigation measures proposed in management plans would protect environmental resources, restore project lands, minimize adverse effects, maximize benefits to protected fish, and restore the landscape of the areas that are currently impounded within the project reach to a more natural state,” the report stated. “Commission staff recommends approval of the proposed license surrender, decommissioning and removal of the project with staff additional recommendations and mandatory conditions.”
For Collins and so many others, the FERC’s recommendation was one of the final chapters in an ongoing story that has seen many lead and supporting characters in the push to restore the Klamath’s free-flowing waters.
Collins cites the rotating board that’s made up the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, plus a “diverse” group of stakeholders involved in the process, with Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, American Whitewater and American Rivers digging in along with CalTrout and others, importantly the Yurok Tribe, Karuk and Klamath Tribes – like the Eel tribal voices – laboring tirelessly to preserve their cultural traditions on these important rivers.
“It started as grassroots organizing and stakeholder groups. It’s really a model for I think what we’re achieving on the Eel. It’s that collaborative approach, joint stakeholders, joint fundraising; they put in the blood, sweat and tears, built the trust that allows each one of the entities that are involved to use their strengths, and coordinate in a way that has created meaningful change,” Collins says.
“It wasn’t always easy because they were literally inventing it. But they created a path with experts who have been working on this for a long time, both in our organization and out, to really make this a model for dam removal moving forward. We’re now standing on the shoulders of giants to really make these types of projects move quicker. We know we have to make the economic case, make the cultural case, make the ecological case, and really make a project that makes sense for as many stakeholders as possible.”
ENVISIONING THE FREE-FLOWING FUTURE
For the CalTrout duo of Mierau and Collins, the Eel and Klamath projects respectively have become labors of love. Mierau grew up in Southern California, but he and his family make their home near Six Rivers National Forest, the heart of some of the most pristine wilderness and rivers California has to offer.
Mireau calls the Smith the North Coast’s premier river, but he wants the Eel to be the stronghold that the Smith is for its region.
“It has that potential. We can get rid of the one hydropower project and the two dams, and make it entirely free-flowing, which is a rare thing across California. It is enormous in size and scale and has the capacity, right alongside the Klamath, for producing abundant fish that can support a commercial fishery and a recreational fishery,” he says. “And it has relatively undeveloped landscapes, so we can at this time turn the tide and make it ecologically resilient and make it be a really healthy watershed going into the future.”
Collins too has moved closer to the action. He now lives around the community of Mount Shasta and is adjacent to the stretch of the Klamath that is soon to be rid of its four dams. The Iron Gate, of course, has taken the biggest toll on migrating fish as the first obstacle heading up the Klamath.
“It’s brutal for a number of reasons. One, they’re taking really cold, clean water and damming it up. And Iron Gate in particular, you see a ton of cyanobacteria. It’s almost impossible to swim near those dam facilities across those four reservoirs,” he says. “They’re really toxic; you’ve seen a rise of parasites, including C. shasta, that have devastating effects. It’s really terrifying. We talk about the cultural importance and viewing the salmon as actually part of the culture within these tribal nations. It is a genocide when you see these fish kills.”
And for Collins, an avid fly fisherman, improving the quality of life for salmon and steelhead has made it all worthwhile all these years. The expectations are for construction to begin in late 2022 or early 2023, the removal of one of the Copco Dams to happen early next year and the other three taken down by 2024.
“When you work at nonprofits, you find people that are not motivated by money, primarily. We should all be paid as much as high- functioning for-profit companies, but that’s a different kind of problem to tackle,” he says. “I’ve always known I wanted to work in conservation. I was really lucky to be mentored by a lot of good close family and friends who really painted a clear picture of what you could do with conservation and the impact you could have, and the livelihood you could create for yourself and your family.”
Mierau was asked about what the Eel could look like 10 years down the road if PG&E’s two Potter Valley Project dams are removed.
“I think first and foremost, the process of decommissioning and removing both Scott and Cape Horn Dams would result in restoration of that river channel itself. And with currently the footprint of Lake Pillsbury, you’ll have many more miles of main channel habitat that can be utilized by Chinook salmon – both adults and juveniles. And then most profoundly, access to the habitat in the headwaters above Lake Pillsbury. That’s going to be a game-changer I think for those populations,” Mireau says.
“But then alongside that, we’re looking at broadening the net of what can be addressed in this process, when a lot of state and federal agencies’ focus will be on the Eel River. I think we should try to utilize this opportunity to pressure PG&E and then expand the effort to begin suppression and eradication of pikeminnow across the basin. And that can have a really big effect.”
Collins had a bit of a spiritual moment recently when he visited Battle Creek, an important tributary of the Sacramento River, and a number of dams and potential removals that would at least improve the situation for endangered salmon that use the creek along their Sac River journey from the sea.
It was a special time for Collins, which he hopes is a harbinger for what could be for the Klamath and Eel, the culmination of years of grinding away to help make these watersheds resurgent and whole again.
“It was really the first time I was able to sit in that water just to take a moment and understand that massive salmon will be moving through these systems. There’s no better feeling than to understand that you’re making a direct impact. There’s no place I’d rather be than standing in one of these river systems that either remains a strong portion of what it used to be or it’s (all the way) back; it’s absolutely meaningful,” Collins says.
“The toughest part of negotiating with water users and other entities that don’t have the exact stance that you have, you want to bang your head against the table and say, ‘Why can’t you see this?’” CS
Editor’s note: For more on Eel and Klamath River dam removal projects, check out the following websites: caltrout.org/ campaigns/eel-river-dams and caltrout.org/campaigns/klamath-dams.