Dam removal!

A major step towards salmon restoration in the Klamath River Basin in southern Oregon and northern California was taken on Feb. 18. Dam removal is on the agenda.

Supporters of this plan are calling the step the largest river and salmon restoration effort in American history.

Formal agreements were signed on Thursday to remove four dams and revise how water will be shared in the Klamath River basin.

The dams, which have provided hydroelectric power and water for farm irrigation for decades, have caused severe depletions in salmon populations in the 250-mile long river, hurting Indian tribes in the area and helping force shutdowns of some West Coast commercial fishing.

In 2001, farmers were angered when irrigation was cut off to provide more water for salmon migrating up the river to spawn. The next year, irrigation was restored, but tens of thousands of fish died. The roller coaster increased tension but eventually led to talks. The basic outlines of the agreements became final in November 2008 under the Bush administration.

The agreements would remove the four dams by 2020 if a series of federal studies and Congressional approval and appropriations follow suit; the interior secretary is to make a final decision on removal by March 2012.

The agreements were signed by Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski of Oregon, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Greg Abel, the chief executive of PacifiCorp, the power company that owns the dams, and more than 30 groups representing tribes, farmers, fishermen and environmentalists. Some tribes and environmental groups refused to sign, citing questions over water flow for salmon and the timing of dam removal.

Economics were critical to the agreements for PacifiCorp, which faced spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve fish passage over the dams. The dams provide power for about 70,000 homes.

The expected cost of dam removal and basin restoration is about $1.5 billion. Oregon has already committed about $200 million. California will ask voters to contribute $250 million through a ballot initiative this fall, though supporters say the state could find other means to pay if the measure fails. Congress will be asked to supply the rest.

So, this is not a done deal by any means.

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