SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Officials from Oregon, California and the Obama administration are scheduled to sign a pact Wednesday agreeing to seek permission to tear down four hydroelectric dams that are blamed for killing fish and blocking their migration.
They will also agree to protect farmers and ranchers from rising power and water prices as they work on a broader pact to bring peace to long-running water wars in the Klamath River basin, which straddles the Oregon-California border.
The landmark agreement revives a dormant, six-year-old settlement process that Congress failed to approve last year. In addition to removing dams, that original settlement would have restored tribal lands and provided more water for farmers and ranchers.
By removing the dams without congressional approval, and providing price assurances to farmers in exchange, the advocates hope to make the larger deal more palatable for Congress.
"Now we're regrouping, trying to figure out what's our path to solve those problems," said Tricia Hill, treasurer of the Klamath Water Users Association, which advocates for farmers and ranchers. "We've got rural communities that rely on the water for jobs ... and that hasn't changed."
The latest deal is spelled out in two agreements. One or both of them will be signed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, California Gov. Jerry Brown, high-ranking federal officials, tribal leaders, conservation groups, large-scale water users and dam-owner PacifiCorp.
Dams alter water flows and contribute to fish diseases and algae bloom problems. Three tribes depend on the fish for subsistence and ceremonial needs, and a fourth hopes fish will return once the dams are removed.
"They will recolonize the river immediately," said Brian Johnson, California director for Trout Unlimited, a conservation group that plans to sign the agreement. "They're there at the dam every year. So they'll start going back right away."
Not everyone is celebrating. Dam removal is a major improvement, but the guarantees for farmers and ranchers don't belong in the agreement, said Jim McCarthy of the conservation group WaterWatch.
"There's a bunch of little sweetheart deals that the irrigators want to maintain, and they're trying to caboose it on this dam-removal train," McCarthy said.
The PacifiCorp utility has supported a dam-removal agreement because it offers the company liability protections and caps the costs to its customers. Several studies have shown that dam upgrades likely to be required would reduce electricity generation and would cost millions more than dam removal and replacement of hydropower with other sources.
The company will transfer ownership of four Klamath River dams to a nonprofit corporation recently created in California, which will petition the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approval to tear them down. Two others will be transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which will continue operating them without raising prices for farmers and ranchers who irrigate their fields.
One of the tribes already has obtained senior water rights through the courts, limiting water available for farmers and ranchers, and the others could pursue that process. Klamath Basin agriculture is valued at about $670 million annually.
Funding for the $450 million project would come from PacifiCorp customers in California and Oregon, along with a water bond approved by California voters in 2014.