SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Endangered salmon blocked for nearly a century from hundreds of miles of the Klamath River in Oregon and California are expected to return en masse under unusual agreements signed Wednesday to tear down four hydroelectric dams.
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who signed the agreements with the governors of both states, said the plan would bring about one of the largest river restoration projects in the history of the U.S.
The landmark agreements also protect farmers and ranchers from rising power and water prices as the various interests work to end long-running water wars in the drought-stricken Klamath River basin.
The dams now block fish from migrating to their historic spawning grounds and also degrade water quality, spreading fish diseases and algae blooms. Salmon are sacred to some Native American tribes that use them for subsistence and ceremony.
"Our allocation of fish this year doesn't meet half of our subsistence for our people," said Yurok Tribe Vice Chairman David Gensaw. "This is a threat to our culture, our religion and the economic survival of our people."
The Klamath basin has been the site of tense disputes between tribes, environmentalists, farmers and ranchers for nearly two decades.
In 2001, water deliveries to farmers and ranchers were severely curtailed. Adult salmon suffered a major die-off a year later. Salmon harvests have been sharply reduced for the tribes as well as recreational and commercial fishers.
The latest deal is spelled out in two agreements signed at the mouth of the Klamath in northern California in a ceremony attended 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.
The agreements include promises to keep working on a dormant, six-year-old settlement process that died when Congress failed to approve it last year. In addition to removing dams, the initial 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.
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.
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 significantly 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.
This story has been corrected to show that the river straddles the Oregon-California border, not the Oregon-Washington border.