The construction of dams on the Klamath River had immediate and resounding impacts on the river’s ecosystem as well as on the communities that had long depended on the Klamath’s predictable and productive natural resources. The 1964 completion of the Iron Gate dam marked another barrier between impacted fisheries and upriver Klamath River communities. Residents were familiar with the impacts that damming the Klamath had on fisheries and were distraught by the idea of yet another obstacle for annual salmon runs. Previously installed dams had already demonstrated the long-term effects damming had on the productivity of the river’s fisheries: not only were fish unable to reach areas above the dams in large numbers but reduced runs led to lower spawning numbers and less fish in the river every year.
The dam-caused degradation of Klamath River natural resources was resisted by communities and special interest groups from the creation of the first dam projects onwards. The Fall Creek Dam, installed by the Siskiyou Electric Power Company and operational by 1903 and California Oregon Power Company (COPCO) #1 and #2 dams completed in 1916 and 1925, respectively, had immediate impacts on seasonal fish runs and river flow predictability. As early as 1913, Klamath River tribes and sports fishermen groups filed suit against the COPCO in response to the collapse of salmon runs as a specific result of the installation of COPCO #1. The case did not make it to court until 1942, long after the completion of the second COPCO installation.
An article in the March 31, 1960, Blue Lake Advocate described the construction of the Iron Gate dam as being built to “re-regulate,” the river’s flow after the construction of dams further upriver, such as COPCO #1 and #2, had caused “fluctua[tion] in such manner as to cause frequent fish kills and to endanger human life on the Klamath…” The article also mentions plans to “construct a fish trapping and egg collecting facility at the dam to compensate for the spawning area lost,” in addition to the expectation that a “fish hatchery will probably be required in addition to the other facilities.” Iron Gate was constructed to compensate for the disruption of river flow caused by other dams on the Klamath but simultaneously contributed to environmental and ecological degradation. There was clearly an understanding that the new dam would further inhibit salmon runs and biologists believed that the position and dimensions of the Iron Gate dam would make any fish ladder installed at the site ineffective and likely pointless.
Iron Gate continues to stand out as an ineffective solution to a series of glaring problems caused by the first generation of dam construction on the Klamath River. While it may help to regulate the flow of the river, it has had far-reaching negative impacts that have further contributed to the river’s ecological degradation. Removal of Iron Gate is a long time coming.