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PHOTO BY AMELIA TEMPLETON, COURTESY OF EARTHFIX  - The Copco Dam is one of four on the Klamath River that would be taken down under a deal announced Tuesday. Oregon and California have struck a deal with PacifiCorp and federal regulators on a new path to removing four aging dams on the Klamath River without congressional approval.

The move was hailed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and the Obama administration as a key step forward after years of delays in implementing a landmark agreement designed to resolve ongoing conflicts over water.

“Oregon is moving forward in the Klamath Basin,” Brown said in an statement. “We can’t afford to sit back and wait for another crisis to batter these communities.”

Over the last four years, Congress has failed to pass legislation that emerged from nearly 10 years of negotiations over how to balance the needs of utilities, farmers, ranchers and Native American tribes in the basin.

After the bill collapsed in December, Portland-based PacifiCorp made a move to salvage a dam removal agreement – one piece of the broader legislation – with the two states and federal agencies.

Under the new agreement-in-principle announced Tuesday, four key parties to the existing Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement will pursue dam removal through a federal administrative process – avoiding the need for a congressional vote.

The parties have agreed to work with more than 40 signatories to the settlement agreement to develop an amendment that will allow for a new route to dam removal. The new plan uses existing funding and aims to remove the dams by 2020.

They’re hoping to sign an amended agreement by the end of the month. The agreement will then be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for consideration. If approved, PacifiCorp would transfer ownership of four Klamath River dams – three in California and one in Oregon – to a non-federal entity that would take responsibility for decommissioning and removing them. The dams produce less than 2 percent of the company’s overall power output.

Bob Gravely, spokesman for PacifiCorp, said he hopes separating the dam removal deal will pave the way for Congress to approve the rest of the agreement, which includes actions intended to help restore the environment, improve fisheries and sustain farming.

“It’s clear that a big sticking point for moving the entire agreement through Congress was resistance to congressional involvement in dam removal,” he said. “We think this is the best way to get the broader agreement moving again.”

In fact, Tuesday’s announcement did seem to build support among Republican lawmakers who did not want to vote for anything smacking of dam removal. Kevin Eastman, a spokesman for Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said his boss believes it is wrong to remove the dams and the power they generate — but he said LaMalfa would now work for congressional approval of the rest of the basin restoration agreement.

“He’s supportive of 98 percent of the settlement agreements,” Eastman said. “He doesn’t support federal dam removal.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who has worked for years to pass Klamath legislation, said he supported this new approach to dam removal. And, he added in a statement, “I remain just as committed to seeing through every other part of this comprehensive agreement, including providing economic development opportunities for the Klamath Tribes and locking in the water certainty that is so essential to the future of farming and ranching families in the Klamath community.”

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the agreement on dam removal vindicated his legislative proposal last year to move forward with the non-dam portions of the agreement.

“I was working to find a legislative package that could move in Congress,” Walden said in a statement. “I will continue to work with the governor, our senators, tribal, farm, fisheries, and other affected parties to achieve a long lasting and balanced settlement for the Klamath Basin that is sustainable for our farm and ranch economy.”

It would be the largest dam removal project in U.S. history, remaking a river where low flows and slackwater behind the dams have made it difficult for salmon, steelhead and suckerfish to survive.

Steve Rothert, California regional director of American Rivers, said the removal would cover 50 miles of river now largely inundated by the four dams and would also improve fishing and habitat on 194 miles below the dams.

“We’re very excited about this,” Rothert said. “We hope to stick with the 2020 schedule we have set forth.”

Rothert expressed confidence that the dam removal would win federal regulatory approval. “It’s a relief to find a path that goes around the politics of Congress,” he said.

The cost of the dam removal would in large part be covered through a surcharge on Pacific Power customers in Oregon and California, who are expected to contribute about $200 million, he said. He also said there is money from a California state water bond, previously identified by negotiators as $250 million. Rothert, however, said he thought that much less would be needed from the water bond.

The Karuk Tribe is one of the Klamath River tribes pressing for dam removal to restore salmon and other native fish. It issued a statement saying its enthusiasm for the latest development is tempered by its worry that advocates for keeping the dams in place and the threat of lawsuits could upend the dam-removal agreement.

“The Agreement in Principle is basically an engagement ring; we won’t celebrate until the wedding,” Karuk Chairman Russell “Buster” Attebery said.

Oregon state Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, is one of those local officials who opposes removing the dams. He complained that his side was frozen out of the latest round of negotiations.

“Sometimes a bad idea just can’t die in this building,” he said Tuesday on the floor of the Oregon Senate.

Don Gentry, chairman of the Klamath Tribes, praised the agreement as a critical step to help fish. Addressing the controversial question of dam removal without involving Congress could help clear roadblocks on legislation implementing the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, Gentry said. That agreement contains a number of provisions important to the tribe that would provide additional land for their reservation, improve streamside restoration and improve the environmental health of the basin.

“It seems like it would make it easier for Congress to step up and move forward on a settlement,” he said.

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