More than 300 miles of struggling salmon runs would be restored along the Klamath River as part of a landmark $1 billion proposal that represents the largest dam removal project in the nation's history.
The plan, announced Tuesday, followed two years of closed-door negotiations between farmers, Indian tribes, fishermen, conservation groups and government agencies battling over the fate of scarce water and fish protected by the Endangered Species Act.
"What we've come up with is a blueprint for how to solve the Klamath crisis," said Craig Tucker, a coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, which has been working for years to restore dwindling salmon catches that were once key to members' diet and culture.
The proposal calls for the scrapping of four aging hydroelectric dams that have stood on the river for nearly a century — providing electricity for 70,000 customers but also blocking salmon from reaching their spawning grounds.
The agreement faces significant hurdles. It must be reviewed by federal agencies, including the U.S. Justice Department, and the dams' owner, PacifiCorp, which must agree to their removal, perhaps as soon as 2015.
In addition to money already being spent to mitigate the impact of the dams, the deal also calls for some $400 million in new spending on salmon restoration, primarily from Congress, for a total of $1 billion over 10 years.
Warren Buffett's role
The plan contains no provision for paying the estimated $180 million to remove the dams, leaving that to PacifiCorp, a unit of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., which is controlled by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
PacifiCorp has previously said it would be willing to remove the dams if its ratepayers don't have to pay. But it has also been pursuing a new 30- or 50-year operating license, which would require it to spend about $300 million to build fish ladders.
"It's worth taking a pretty serious look at it," said PacifiCorp spokesman Paul Vogel, who noted his company wasn't part of the negotiations. "We don't know whether anyone has seriously represented our customers on our behalf, because our customers have to be protected in this."
Steve Thompson, director of the California-Nevada office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento, Calif., said the Bush administration has supported the settlement process, but the plan must be reviewed by federal agencies.
Thompson added that he knew of no dam removal project in the country that has restored more habitat or would generate more fish, and characterized the new spending as a better investment than past disaster relief to farmers and fishermen.
One tribe, two conservation groups oppose
Opposition to the agreement is coming from the Hoopa Valley Tribe, based on the Trinity River, which flows into the Klamath below the dams; some farmers who are not part of the Klamath Reclamation Project; and two conservation groups tossed out of the talks last spring, Oregon Wild and WaterWatch.
Hoopa Chairman Clifford Marshall said the agreement gives irrigation water priority over the needs of salmon and requires the tribe to waive its water rights on behalf of fish, without any hard assurances the dams would come out.
"Dangling a carrot like this will not work for Hoopa," he said.
Luther Horsley, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents the 1,000 farms on the project, said farmers would achieve their goals of predictable irrigation deliveries, affordable power for irrigation pumps, and freedom from future lawsuits involving endangered species.
Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild and Robert Hunter of WaterWatch said they were skeptical that the deal could actually produce the extra water that salmon need to thrive, or that Congress could come up with the money. They characterized the agreement as a sweetheart deal for the Bush administration to give farmers what they want.
The Klamath, straddling the Oregon-California line, was once the third most productive salmon river system on the West Coast, but it has declined because of misguided hatchery practices, overfishing, development and the loss of habitat to dams, mining, and logging.
Fish returns have become so small that in 2006 commercial salmon fishing had to be nearly shut down off most of Oregon and California, causing a federal disaster declaration.