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PacifiCorp agrees to removal of dams

The utility that owns four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River has agreed to terms for their removal, a key milestone in efforts to restore what was once the third largest salmon run on the West Coast and end decades of battles over scarce water.

PacifiCorp, the states of California and Oregon, American Indian tribes, federal agencies, irrigators and conservation groups announced the draft agreement today. Signing is expected by the end of the year.

Actual removal is not scheduled to start until 2020, and depends on full funding of the removal, a determination by the U.S. Secretary of Interior that it actually will help salmon and is in the public interest, and authorization from Congress.

"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.

"Hats off to all the stakeholders who have worked so hard to find common ground on one of the most challenging water issues of our time."

PacifiCorp will not bear the estimated $450 million cost of removing the dams.

Oregon has approved $180 million in surcharges on state ratepayers. Another $250 million depends on California approving general obligation bonds.

"If the federal government and the states of California and Oregon sign onto this negotiated final settlement, then we will join with them and all the other stakeholder groups that may choose to sign the agreement," PacifiCorp Chairman and CEO Greg Abel said in a statement.

The utility serves 1.6 million customers in Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, and is owned by MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., a unit of Warren Buffett's Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

"When the Klamath dams come down, it will be the biggest dam removal project the world has ever seen," Steve Rothert, California director for the conservation groups American Rivers, said in a statement. "We will be able to watch on a grand scale as a river comes back to life."

Water wars have long simmered in the Klamath Basin, where the first of the dams and a federal irrigation project built in the early 20th century turned the natural water distribution upside down, draining marshes and lakes and tapping rivers for electricity to put water on dry farmland that grows potatoes, horseradish, grain, alfalfa and cattle.

A drought in 2001 forced a shutoff of irrigation water to sustain threatened and endangered fish. When the irrigation was restored the next year, tens of thousands of salmon died trying to spawn in the Klamath River, which was too low and too warm to sustain them.

Besides blocking salmon from the upper basin, the dams raise water temperatures to levels unhealthy for fish. Their reservoirs produce toxic algae. The fish are beset by parasites.

The four dams — Copco J.P. Doyle, Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate — together produce enough electricity for 70,000 customers.

Pressure has been building since PacifiCorp applied for a new 50-year federal operating license in 2004 and made no provision for fish passage, which stops at Iron Gate near the Oregon-California border.

California and Oregon's governors pressed for dam removal after West Coast commercial salmon fisheries collapsed in 2006 because of declines in Klamath River returns, triggering a disaster declaration.

Federal biologists mandated that fish ladders and other improvements costing $300 million be added to the dams before a federal operating license could be renewed.

California water authorities have been taking a hard look at the dams' role in toxic algae plaguing the river, and river advocates have sued PacifiCorp to fix the algae problem.

Final approval of the dam removal agreement is key to authorization of a separate agreement to spend $1 billion over the next decade on environmental restoration in the Klamath Basin.

Some conservation groups were not happy that dam removal continues to be linked to letting farming continue on the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake national wildlife refuges, preventing restoration of wetlands that would contribute to better water quality, and guaranteed irrigation levels for farmers in the upper basin.

"It's fantastic that we have attention on the Klamath Basin and might get a shot at dam removal," said Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild in Portland. "But we really can't afford to allow dam removal be linked to making other environmental problems in the basin worse."

Some details remain unresolved. It is not certain, for example, whether the federal government or some other entity will take possession of the dams to remove them.