Helping Usher In the Largest River Restoration Project in US History

The Klamath River is the second largest river in California, running near the border of California and Oregon, and is one of the most important West Coast rivers for salmon, steelhead, and rainbow trout migrations. For many Native American tribes, including the Yurok and Karuk, these fish migrations are central to their way of life, their culture, and their prosperity. The Klamath Basin watershed stretches more than 9 million acres, an area larger than several US states, and supports a range of communities, including Native American, farmers, ranchers, loggers, and anglers.

Today, salmon returns from the Klamath River are less than 5% of their historical abundance as a result of the construction of the federal Klamath irrigation project as well as a series of dams — JC Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate — the first of which was constructed in 1918. These dams prevent indigenous peoples from accessing cultural heritage sites, impede salmon from getting into hundreds of miles of historical habitat, degrade water quality, create toxic algal blooms, and foster the spread of fish diseases. However, scientific studies and dam removal efforts in other watersheds have demonstrated that dam removal can reverse these trends.

In partnership with the Yurok Tribe, the Karuk Tribe, the Klamath Tribes, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the states of California and Oregon, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, and PacifiCorp, the Ridges to Riffles Indigenous Conservation Group is working to remove these dams to restore the health of the Klamath River and protect the rights of the communities that depend on it. Based in California and Native American-led, Ridges to Riffles is a fiscally sponsored nonprofit organization that helps indigenous peoples protect, preserve, and restore the natural and cultural resources they rely on, thereby promoting and protecting Native American identity and sovereignty.

Since early 2021, a Latham team has represented Ridges to Riffles as it advocates for the regulatory approvals necessary to remove dams on the Klamath River. Over the course of the project, our team has provided strategic regulatory advice, helped prepare Ridges to Riffles for meetings with regulators and other stakeholders, and helped the client provide strategic comments on the draft Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) environmental impact statement.

“Dam removal is the first important step toward ensuring the critical resources the river provides will be protected and available for future generations.”

Nikki Buffa, Partner, Orange County

In November 2022, FERC approved the removal of the dams, and the drawdown began in January 2024. The dams’ removal — which represents the largest river restoration project in US history — is estimated to be completed by the end of 2024. According to the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the removals will “reopen access to 400 miles of habitat for threatened coho salmon, Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and other threatened native fish.”

“While restoration of the Klamath River will take time, dam removal is the first important step toward ensuring the critical resources the River provides will be protected and available for future generations,” said partner Nikki Buffa, who leads the Latham team advising Ridges to Riffles.

The dam removal and river restoration project were made possible through a negotiated agreement among the Yurok and Karuk Tribes, the States of California and Oregon, conservation organizations like Ridges to Riffles, commercial fishing organizations, and dam owner PacifiCorp. All told, the FERC regulatory oversight process took six years.

NOAA, the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Department of the Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife, several state agencies, Trout Unlimited, and other entities are currently evaluating several potential restoration activities, which will be implemented upon the dams’ removal. Latham will continue to represent Ridges to Riffles during the numerous regulatory processes associated with these activities that will follow.

Article updated on January 23, 2024