Rivers are often viewed as places of respite, reflection, and relaxation. The gentle music of moving water is a welcome change to the cacophony of modern everyday life. Unfortunately, the Klamath River’s therapeutic qualities are severely compromised each summer by massive blooms of toxic blue-green algae.
The Klamath’s volcanic headwaters are naturally rich in nutrients which historically supported expansive wetlands in the Upper Basin. Despite many acres of wetlands being lost to development, millions of waterfowl traversing the Pacific Flyway still depend on the Klamath’s wetlands today to forage and nest. However; water shortages have left the refuges dusty and led to massive bird kills.
Without wetlands to consume high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, the Klamath carries the nutrients downstream. Once flows stall behind Iron Gate, Copco I and Copco II dams, the summer sun warms the water and cyanobacteria, or blue green algae, erupt into massive blooms. The water turns bright green and the dank smell is overpowering. While there are many different species of blue green algae, one of the dominate forms observed in these reservoirs is highly toxic to people and animals, called Microcystis aeruginosa. This algae secretes an invisible toxin call microcystin that can lead to liver failure at high and repeated exposure.
Right now, as in most years about this time, the Klamath reservoirs and the river downstream are posted with warnings against recreational contact with the water. What should be a haven of respite from pandemic and fires is yet another dangerous risk to human health.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Removing dams that have no role in irrigation or flood control would allow the river to cleanse itself through natural processes, effectively detoxing the water and Klamath communities.