The qualitative and quantitative study is co-led by anthropologist Bryan Tilt and includes several master’s and Ph.D. students from OSU

Mount Shasta in late summer. The Shasta River, in northern California, is a tributary of the Klamath River and the spawning grounds of endangered Chinook salmon. (Photo by Hannah Boone)

By Haley Mckinnon, CLA student writer - January 19, 2024

After more than a century, the Klamath River is losing its dams. For some people, it's been a long time coming; for others, it’s troubling.

In the early 2000s, research on the four hydroelectric dams showed that they were disrupting salmon migration, and that they provided relatively little power compared to some of Pacific Power’s other sources, so the decision was made to remove the dams completely instead of doing costly retrofitting. In the world’s biggest dam removal project, the first of the dams, Copco 2, was removed in 2023, with the remaining three, JC Boyle, Copco 1, and Iron Gate, scheduled for removal in 2024.

OSU professor and cultural anthropologist Bryan Tilt has been part of a multi-phased, qualitative and quantitative study, funded by the Oregon Sea Grant, on the effects of the dam removal on communities who interact with and rely on the Klamath River. It’s a big project with lots of personnel and moving parts, according to Tilt, with researchers looking at the change in infrastructure from multiple angles. “There’s people on our team looking at what's happening ecologically – how the dam removal project is going to affect water quality and what the river channel looks like – while my piece is really about the people, and how individuals and communities are affected,” said Tilt.

The Klamath River flows from the foot of the Cascade Mountains on the California-Oregon border and snakes southwest into California, passing through several hydropower dams before opening into the Pacific Ocean south of Crescent City. At the mouth of the Klamath are the homelands of the Yurok Tribe, and OSU has partnered with Tribe researchers and ecologists to learn about the perspectives of indigenous people and think about the project from a Traditional Ecological Knowledge standpoint. Tribes including the Klamath Tribes, the Karuk Tribe, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, and the Yurok Tribe have advocated for the removal of the dams for years, as salmon and other threatened fish species are both a critical food source and an important cultural resource. “The goal is to collect all this social science information to think about management options that might be win-win,” said Tilt. “Are there places where the interests of these different parties overlap, and can we make some decisions that benefit everybody?” Surveyed stakeholder groups in the river basin include farmers and ranchers who use Klamath River water for irrigation, people working in conservation, restoring salmon habitat or improving water quality, people who use the river for recreation such as river rafting and paddling, and fishing communities.

Currently, Tilt’s team is conducting interviews with plans to do larger scale surveys in the next year or two, continuously analyzing social responses on a rolling basis. Several students in the master’s or Ph.D. programs at OSU have found opportunities to get involved with hands-on training in all aspects of the project, either conducting interviews and surveys, or in the field collecting water quality data. “There’s a lot of overlap. Because we’re an interdisciplinary group of researchers, the students also have an interdisciplinary cohort that they are working with,” said Tilt. “One of my anthropology master’s students spent a couple of days over the summer doing water quality sampling because they needed an extra person, and I think that was a really interesting experience for her.” The ecological science teams are doing specific pre- and post-removal water quality and habitat studies. With 400 miles of habitat blocked off by the dams, degraded water quality, and toxic algae growth, the river has seen the near-collapse of multiple salmon populations. In fact, there hasn’t been a thriving fishery along the Klamath for several decades due to the unhealthy conditions of the river.

OSU applied anthropology graduate student Jenna Davis working on a salmon habitat restoration project on a tributary of the Klamath River. (Photo by Bryan Tilt)

Tilt came into the Klamath River project “through the back door,” he said. His studies and the last twenty years of his work have focused on anthropology and social and cultural change in contemporary China, including water resource issues. “It’s almost a mirror image,” Tilt said of his work here in Oregon and his work in China. “We’re taking dams out and they’re putting dams in because their economy has been growing so fast and they need a lot of electricity.” Some of Tilt’s work has thus been about what happens to communities and ecosystems when dams are built. He had an opportunity to collaborate with Desiree Tullos, an OSU professor of biological and ecological engineering and leader of the Rivers Lab, on the Klamath River project, who he has previously worked with on projects in China. The juxtaposition of dam construction and removal work has led to some interesting discoveries about the similarities of people and natural resources all over the world. “All of the places where these big projects are located are pretty rural places,” said Tilt. “They're not easy to access, they're full of people who often have a land-based livelihood like farming,  ranching, or fishing, and they're often people who feel overlooked. They feel like the centers of power that make decisions are located in urban centers and state and national capitals. There is a lot of overlap between the kind of people who get affected by projects like this.”

As an anthropologist, Tilt is used to studying social and cultural change, but this project especially highlights the synergy of social and ecological considerations of natural resource use. “What interests me about projects like this is that big infrastructure like dams are forms of social engineering as much as natural engineering,” he said. “They really alter the way people relate to the environment and what kinds of uses are possible with certain natural resources. To me this is an example of top down social change.” The Klamath River has seen substantial conflict over the past few decades; there isn’t enough water to go around, and every unit of water that gets used for irrigation is water that doesn’t stay in the stream and help maintain healthy salmon populations. “These are long standing issues that are coming to a head with dam removal. This case is interesting for its own sake but just about everywhere in the Western U.S. is faced with water scarcity, growing population, and competing uses for water, so it's a really interesting microcosm of all of that,” said Tilt. 

It’s too early to synthesize particular results from the surveys, but initial data suggests that water quality is a significant concern among the groups that have been interviewed. “Water quality is driven at least in part by the dams,” said Tilt. “When water in a river hits a dam, especially if there's a reservoir behind it, it’s basically standing water. That’s how you get algae blooms and all kinds of water quality problems.” So far, they have only interviewed farmers and ranchers as well as conservation groups, and while they disagree in some ways, everyone seems to care about water quality. “The conservation groups have been advocating for dam removal and they're very much in support of it. The farmers and ranchers are more skeptical. But we’re seeing in these interviews that a lot of people across these groups care about water quality. They value it for their families, for their livestock, for fish – so it's not necessarily a matter of people wanting different things, it's a matter of who pays the cost when a big change like this happens.”

Most of the farmers and ranchers won’t be too affected when it comes to water access after the dams come out, but, as Tilt said, “They do see it as a little bit of a threat. They feel like it's prioritizing conservation and other things in the river basin, and kind of forgetting about their own needs. We’re seeing some overlap in perspectives, and we’re seeing some diversions.” When it comes to questions of natural resource use, it’s never black and white. In thinking about whether or not removing the dams is a good thing, Tilt said: “The more I learn about something, the more nuanced I realize it is. One of the challenges of doing anthropology is trying to keep your own biases out of it so you can really learn and understand the perspectives of others. You do have empathy for the people you spend time with and people you learn about, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Part of that understanding comes in the form of collaboration between the two institutions working together on the project: OSU and the Yurok Tribe. With a staff focused on fisheries science, the Tribe is conducting their own social and ecological research in partnership with OSU. “We wanted to know if there was a way to include something like TEK in a scientific process, and also in the policy process about making decisions about water and natural resources,” said Tilt. About two-thirds of the research team are OSU-affiliated, while one-third are Yurok Tribe members. One member of the research team is from the University of Montana. “We’re literally working alongside each other with the same goals of trying to understand the ecological, social, and cultural aspects of this river system. That’s been a learning experience for me – working across disciplinary backgrounds, working across cultural backgrounds, thinking about ways of valuing, different ways of understanding nature, not just in the western ecological science perspective but the perspective of people who have been on the landscape for many many generations, and who have been historically connected to salmon as a food resource and a centerpiece of culture,” said Tilt. This kind of collaboration has happened before, but not often. This is the most direct work Tilt has done with a Tribe. “It’s been really rewarding. It’s very challenging to try to get it right because when you're working with tribes, there's history there. People understand the history of colonization and marginalization, so there's a lot of sensitivity around who's at the table and whose stories get told, and how those viewpoints get properly respected.”

OSU applied anthropology graduate student Hannah Boone interviews a member of a local conservation organization in Siskiyou County, California. (Photo by Bryan Tilt)

Bryan Tilt

This research project is a pragmatic approach to bringing theories and methods of anthropology into public policy to address larger challenges. Ultimately, Tilt and his team are aiming to apply their data to a policy decision model; “We take what we’re learning on the ecological side about water quality, salmon recovery, and how the river changes in response to dam removal, and we take what we learn on the social side by interviewing and surveying all these different groups and finding out what their management priorities are, and then we essentially try and put those together into a decision model,” said Tilt. The model is a heuristic device, allowing for policymakers to be able to see the explicit trade-offs in relevant management decisions, like regulating the flow of water out of Upper Klamath Lake. It aims to address the questions, “What particular groups would benefit from a management action? What particular groups might lose from a management action? Are there certain actions that are broadly beneficial?” It may take years before it’s clear how the dam removals are ecologically or socially beneficial.

As an anthropologist, Tilt recognizes that ecological issues are inherently social issues, and are therefore exceedingly complicated. He tells students, “You might be under the impression that you’re studying environmental science, but natural resources are a human construct, a social and political construct.” Decision making in these spaces is complex, and Tilt said, “I think people can move into this field unprepared for the fact that they are really dealing with human issues that involve political, social, philosophical, and moral underpinnings.”

OSU and Yurok Tribe researchers visit a habitat restoration site led by the Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation.