SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Oregon, California, the federal government and others have agreed to go forward with a plan to remove four hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest without approval from a reluctant Congress, a spokesman for dam owner PacifiCorp said Monday.
The dam removal is part of an announcement planned Wednesday in Klamath, California, by the governors of both states and U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Tearing down the dams would be a major victory for tribes that have fought for years to restore the river for salmon they rely on for subsistence and ceremony.
The move also could breathe new life into a struggling effort to allocate more water for farmers and ranchers in the drought-stricken Klamath basin.
Under the deal, a nonprofit corporation recently formed in California would take ownership of the hydroelectric dams and assume liability for any damage that stems from their removal, said Bob Gravely, a spokesman for Portland-based PacifiCorp.
The plan, which aims to remove the dams in 2020, still needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Going through FERC avoids the need for congressional approval for dam removal, which was required in earlier Klamath plans but met opposition from Republican lawmakers concerned about setting a precedent.
A water settlement agreement expired at the end of 2015 when Congress failed to approve the dam removal. Going around Congress on dams could make it more politically palatable for lawmakers to back other elements of the water agreements.
Dams thwart salmon migration, degrade water quality, 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.
One of the tribes already has obtained 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.
Thomas O'Rourke Sr., chairman of the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, said the Klamath River can begin to heal if the dams come down.
"That's our livelihood," O'Rourke said. "If the river's sick, our fish are sick, the animals that live around it become sick, and the people become sick."
PacifiCorp has supported a dam-removal agreement because it offers the utility 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.
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.