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Over 70 Years of Representing the Farmers and Ranchers of Klamath Project

6:53 pm, Apr 20, 2024
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Ancient rock dams on the Link River

In speaking on the history of water in the Klamath Basin, I have often characterized the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s decision to allow the California-Oregon Power Company (Copco) to construct Link River Dam, at the outlet of Upper Klamath Lake, as the most controversial decision it made in the Klamath Basin because it allowed mankind to influence the flow of the Klamath River at the border of Oregon and California.  I still agree with the first part of that statement, but I’ll acknowledge that the second half is factually wrong.

The outflow from Upper Klamath Lake has been influenced and manipulated by humans for thousands of years, long before any federal engineer envisioned a concrete dam there.

When William F. Clarke, a farmer from the Willamette Valley, traveled through “Klamath Lake County” in 1885, he noted the “ruins” of an ancient rock dam on Link River.  “It is a semi-circle, pointing downstream, with a narrow channel extending some distance downstream. The water barely covers the wall, but its outline is plainly visible… The shallow outlet of Big Klamath Lake has been caused by the Indians, who wish to confine the waters of the lake for the sake of tule lands.”

While the historical record is sparse on these features, in 1900, the Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Va.) reprinted an unattributed letter from Klamath Falls, which goes into great length describing Link River and these stone structures.  “At several points along the bed of the stream rocks are piled in a rainbow shape, with the bow extending up stream, almost across the entire stream.”

“At the upper end, or near the source of the river, is a greater work than any of these.  By means of rocks, a broad roadway has been constructed from bank to bank of the stream, with walls on either side.”

“It is estimated by E.R. Reames, an old settler and leading businessman, who has made the matter a study, that to gather the rocks and build one of these walls would require the services of 100 men for several weeks…”

“These structures cannot be seen except when the river-bed is dry or the water is very low, and with the flow of the water now passing through the channel it would be impossible for labors to work in the bed of the stream.”

The last known account of these structures comes from the September 22, 1908, edition of the local newspaper, the Evening Herald.  According to that report, “The unusual lowness of the water on Link River this year has uncovered the most interesting view of the ingenuity of the first native inhabitants of this section.”

“The structures are built with runways, through which the salmon must pass in order to get up the river.  On the sides of these channels, there are platforms built of rocks from which the Indians would spear the large salmon as they made their way against the swift current.  These ancient fish traps have attracted very little attention, for during the past quarter century, they have been visible to the casual observer but twice…  For the past 25 years, the water has been too high in Link River to make the dams of any use for fishing.”

In 1907, when the Moore Brothers relocated their sawmill from the west bank of Link River to the shores of Lake Ewauna. Link River was used for a short period to float logs that had been cut from around the shores of Upper Klamath Lake.  The river proved not to be ideal for floating logs.  Log jams were frequent, and dynamite was occasionally used to dislodge logs.  The “improvements” made to Link River during this period likely erased most of the evidence of these ancient dams.  The channel modifications made by Copco in connection with the construction of the Link River Dam between 1919 and 1922 likely eliminated any remaining portions.

A core tenant among regulatory agencies and environmental advocates is that the construction and ongoing operation of the Klamath Project “significantly altered the natural flows of the upper and lower Klamath River.”  This premise drives current water management, as releases from Upper Klamath Lake are shaped to reproduce a “natural hydrograph.”

Numerous studies have also been conducted to estimate and reproduce so-called “natural flows.”  In fact, Reclamation is currently conducting a new “natural flow study,” which is expected to be completed in 2025 (see

Yet history clearly shows that the outflow from Upper Klamath Lake, and thus flows in the Klamath River, have been altered to some degree by man-made impoundments for thousands of years.

Author: Moss Driscoll, Director of Water Policy, KWUA

Cover image: Historic photo of Link River. Shaw Historical Library.

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