Resighini Rancheria

Ecological Restoration of the Klamath River

An ecosystem based approach to resolving Klamath River water quality impairment is in keeping with current best-science principles: 

“Management of the freshwater habitat of Pacific salmon should focus on natural processes and variability rather than attempt to maintain or engineer a desired set of conditions through time” (Bisson et al. 2009). 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2000) also recommends this approach:

“Restoration strives for the greatest progress toward ecological integrity achievable within the current limits of the watershed, by using designs that favor the natural processes and communities that have sustained native ecosystems through time.”

Upper Klamath LakeMajor human alterations and reengineering of the Upper Klamath Basin have overwhelmed ecosystem function and caused the Klamath River to develop acute water pollution.  Ecosystem services that stifle algae blooms, absorb nutrients and provide water storage need to be regained, which will then allow Pacific salmon and sucker species recovery.

The Klamath River has passed its tipping point in terms of nutrient balance due to several changes:

Recent studies found that intact marshes create water chemistry that kills blue-green algae (BGA) cells (WRC 2009) and intact marshes surrounding Upper Klamath Lake likely prevented its occurrence there historically.  Upper Klamath Basin studies (Lytle 2000, Meyers 2005) also show that marshes can strip nutrients from water passed through them.  This is an example of how restored ecosystem function could supply the service of maintaining clean water  in the Upper Basin and for downstream reaches of the Klamath River. 

See Klamath River Ecosystem Slide Show in pdf format.

Keno ReservoirNitrogen enriched waters from Upper Klamath Lake that pour into Keno Reservoir are joined with waste water from the Lost River, Tule Lake and farms in the bed of Lower Klamath Lake.  The combined nutrient pollution makes Keno Reservoir an anoxic dead zone for five to ten weeks a year.  The Chinook Expert Panel (Goodman et al. 2011) predicted that Pacific salmon restoration to the Upper Basin is unlikely even after dam removal because water quality problems in the Keno reach will not be resolved.  They estimated that 40,000 acres of wetlands would have to be restored to reduce phosphorous levels in order to reduce nuisance algae blooms.

The coho salmon-Steelhead Expert Panel (Dunne et al. 2011) also recognized that failure by the KBRA to abate water pollution in Keno Reservoir and Upper Klamath Lake and instead relying on trapping and hauling for fish passage that constitutes an “open-ended retreat from ecosystem restoration goals.”

The goal of ecological restoration as applied to the Klamath River is not to return the watershed to pristine conditions but rather to take strategic actions to restore the natural balance so that beneficial uses as defined by the Clean Water Act can be attained. If the natural system is restored to a level where its ecosystem processes clean the water, then it will be largely powered by gravity and far less expensive than technological fixes.

Specific steps that need to be taken are:

The Klamath Facilities Removal Public Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Environmental Impact Report (DEIS/DEIR) covering the Secretary of Interior’s Decision did not have an ecological restoration alternative. Consequently, the DEIS/DEIR did not follow the path of best science similar to the Greater Everglades Ecosystem Restoration program (SERES 2010), where needs for increased flows and wetland restoration are recognized as necessary elements. 

“We must restore impaired ecosystems if we are ever to regain the natural capital necessary to prevent continued economic and social decay and to approach economic and ecological health and sustainability” (SER 2004).

Lower Klamath LakeRestoration of the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) is an essential element of ecological restoration. Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake were formerly the water storage and water filter systems for the Upper Klamath Basin. Current management in the critically dry 2012 water year threatens Tule Lake suckers and 40% of the waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway that rely on Lower Klamath NWR. See letter to Secretary of Interior Salazar.


Bisson, P. A., J. B. Dunham, and G. H. Reeves. 2009. Freshwater ecosystems and resilience of Pacific salmon: habitat management based on natural variability. Ecology and Society 14(1): 45.

Dunne, T., G. Ruggerone, D. Goodman, K. Rose, W. Kimmerer and J. Ebersole. 2011. Klamath River Expert Panel Final Report: Scientific Assessment of Two Dam Removal Alternatives on Coho Salmon and Steelhead. Published April 25, 2011. Funded by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but produced with assistance from Atkins Company, San Diego, CA. 380 p.

Goodman, D., M. Harvey, R. Hughes, W. Kimmerer, K. Rose, and G. Ruggerone. 2011. Scientific Assessment of Two Dam Removal Alternatives on Chinook Salmon. Final filed June 13, 2011.  Funded by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but produced with assistance from Atkins Company, San Diego, CA. 350 p.

Higgins, P.T. 2012. Applying Ecological Restoration Principals to Solve Klamath River Water Pollution Problems. Power Point presentation by Patrick Higgins on behalf of the Resighini Rancheria at the Klamath Water Quality Workshop in Sacramento, CA on 9/11/12. Patrick Higgins, Consulting Fisheries Biologist, Arcata, CA. 39 slides.

Lytle, C.M. 2000. Water Quality Data Review and Wetland Size Estimate for the
Treatment of Wastewaters from the Klamath Straits Drain.  Draft Technical Memorandum , July 28, 2000. Performed under contract to the U.S. BOR, Klamath Falls, OR. 15 p.

Mayer, T.D. 2005. Water Quality Impacts of Wetland Management in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon and California, USA. Wetlands 25: 697-712. water quality on Lower Klamath NWR.pdf

National Academies of Science (NAS). 2003. Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin: Causes of decline and strategies for recovery. Prepared for the NAS by the National Research Council, Division on Earth and Life Studies, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Committee on Endangered and Threatened Fishes in the Klamath River Basin. Washington, DC 358 pp. [5.1Mb]

Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). 2004.  The SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration. Society for Ecological Restoration International Science & Policy Working Group. SER, Tucson, AZ.

Synthesis of Everglades Research and Ecosystem Services (SERES). 2011. Review of Everglades Science, Tools and Needs Related to Key Science Management Questions. Produced for the Critical Ecosystems Studies Initiative of the National Park Service. 339 p.

Wetland Research Consortium (WRC). 2009. Final Report: Use of Aquatic and Terrestrial Plant Decomposition Products for the Control of Aphanizomenon flos-aqua at Upper Klamath Lake, Oregon.  Prepared for: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Klamath Falls, OR. Klamath Basin Ecosystem Restoration Office, Klamath Falls, OR. 75 p.