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Utility agrees to removal of 4 Klamath River dams

In a major boost for dwindling salmon stocks, a utility company has agreed to the removal of four hydroelectric dams that for decades have blocked fish migrations on one of the West Coast’s most important salmon rivers.

The dam decommission is vital to restoring the Klamath River, which for years has been the subject of bitter feuding among farmers, fishermen and American Indian interests.

It would open historic salmon spawning and rearing grounds on the upper reaches of the river, which winds from southern Oregon through the Cascade and Coast ranges to California’s Pacific coast.

“We can’t restore the river solely by removing the dams, but we can’t restore the Klamath without removing the dams,” said Steve Rothert of American Rivers, one of 26 parties negotiating the dam settlement.

Backers say the decommissioning – which will require federal approval – would be the largest and most complex dam removal project in the United States.

“We’re about to make changes to the Klamath basin that will be observable from space,” said Craig Tucker of the Karuk Tribe of American Indians.

For PacifiCorp, consenting to the end of the J.C. Boyle, Copco Nos. 1 and 2, and Iron Gate dams ultimately was a business decision. The utility, a subsidiary of billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire, faced litigation and expensive relicensing requirements for the dams, the oldest of which dates to 1918.

“As a utility we don’t typically take dams out,” said Dean Brockbank, PacifiCorp’s lead negotiator. “We have achieved an agreement that is in the best interest of our customers – the lowest cost and risk compared to the alternative.”

Under the draft settlement, which the parties hope to sign by the end of the year, PacifiCorp would continue to operate the dams until 2020. Then they would transfer the hydropower facilities to another entity, probably the federal government, for dismantling.

The U.S. Department of Interior has to make a determination that the dam removal will be in the public interest, a sign-off that Brockbank said is not guaranteed but that the company expects to get.

“This agreement marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Klamath River and for the communities whose health and way of life depend on it,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

The settlement terms call for PacifiCorp ratepayers in Oregon and California to pay a surcharge to finance a company contribution of up to $200 million for dam removal and river channel restoration. The state of California would provide as much as $250 million in bond money.

“We’re hopeful this will result in dam removal, but a number of things have to occur before that can happen,” said Kirk Miller, deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. “It is a complicated matter.”

The dams, which range in height from 33 feet to 173 feet and are spread across 65 miles of the Klamath, haven’t just kept chinook and coho salmon out of the upper river and its tributaries. They also have hurt water quality.

In the summer, stagnant pools of warm water behind the dams become a breeding ground for toxic algae.

The Klamath basin made national headlines early this decade when federal water managers cut irrigation deliveries to preserve fish flows, sparking irate protests from farming interests. The following year, when more water was released to agriculture, tens of thousands of salmon died, floating in the river’s warm, shallow waters and washing up on its banks.

“We are redefining what restoration and collaboration means,” said Chuck Bonham of Trout Unlimited.

Along with the Columbia and Sacramento rivers, the Klamath traditionally has been one of the country’s most productive salmon rivers. But West Coast salmon stocks have been in such poor shape the past three years that California has canceled its commercial salmon fishing season.

The Klamath has “been dammed and polluted nearly to death,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Jeffrey Mount, director of the Center for Integrated Watershed Science and Management at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the American Rivers board, warned that tearing down the dams would not solve all the Klamath’s water-quality problems.

“There is this assumption that a miracle will occur when the dams come down. Removal of the dams does not address the broader problems of the basin.”

He described Upper Klamath Lake, which feeds the river, as a “big, warm, green pile of goo” that could make things worse for fish once the dams are gone.

Still, he said, “This is incredibly exciting.”