The partition of the Klamath River was made concrete in 1918, when the California Oregon Power Co. (long known as Copco; later bought by Pacific Power) built the first of its big hydroelectric dams on the Klamath. Three other major dams followed, the farthest downstream being Iron Gate Dam, finished in 1962. Today the dams are the backbone of the power system that produces 750,000 megawatt hours for Pacific Power in an average year, enough to meet the electricity needs of 70,000 homes. It's especially useful power in that it releases no carbon emissions and can be turned on in an instant to supply peak needs.
The dams have long been a focus of local pride for the upriver communities, emblems of autonomy for a region that had always held itself self-consciously apart. Residents call this stretch of far northern California and far southern Oregon the "State of Jefferson," and have on occasion discussed separating from their respective states and incorporating as a new state. Various efforts at statehood have faltered over the years, but Jefferson lives on as a code name for pugnacious patriotism. From the start, the local utility was a part of this independence. "I've heard that when they held an essay contest for the name of the new state they were going to form, the name that was suggested second to 'Jefferson' was 'Copcoland,' " says Toby Freeman, regional community manager with Pacific Power.
Whatever their utilitarian purpose, the dams effectively divided the river into two peoples, one of which lived off salmon, and the other of which never even saw one, since the dams obstructed the fish's upstream migrations. For the dams' opponents, the physical obstacle is only one of the ways the dams upset the Klamath's balance. Fishermen contend that the water impoundment alters the temperature and flow of river waters, encouraging fish diseases. In 2008, the Karuk Tribe released a report concluding that the cyanobacteria, commonly called blue-green algae, that bloom dramatically in the still summer waters behind Iron Gate are releasing toxins that could make fish and freshwater mussels unsafe to eat.
The issues in play over the Klamath's future are complex, but one prospect resides at the center of all the debate: removing the four hydroelectric dams. Advocates hope this might restore the river to its natural condition and allow migrating salmon an unobstructed path to headwater breeding grounds for the first time in a century. Demolition of the dams would also remove a symbolic barrier between the upriver and downriver human communities, but those parties haven't waited for dynamite to facilitate their convergence. For the past eight years, a group of affected parties—governmental, tribal, industrial, and private—has been convening over an endless series of conference tables in drab offices and motel meeting rooms, working its way through a cat's cradle of interlocking questions. If the talks succeed in resolving the Klamath conflict, the result will be historic. And if the dams are removed, notes Craig Tucker, Klamath Campaign coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, "this will be the largest dam removal ever on an American river. This can be a model for environmental cooperation."