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Tentative Klamath deal reached

But it hinges on removal of four dams by a utility not included in the talks.

By David Whitney - dwhitney@mcclatchydc.com  January 16, 2008, Sacramento Bee

WASHINGTON An agreement to restore the Klamath River so that it would once again teem with salmon was unveiled Tuesday, but it lacked one crucial element removal of four hydroelectric dams that have slowed its waters and helped breed fish-killing disease.

The $950 million deal would double spending on the sick river system over the next decade and give Klamath basin farmers in southern Oregon guaranteed irrigation water while also sending more water downriver to support fish runs.

Advocates said the deal is contingent upon separate negotiations with Portland-based PacifiCorp to dismantle the dams, which would free water to replenish the river system. But the utility could not say how seriously it is considering doing that. Federal regulators are in the last stages of relicensing the dams for another 50 years.

PacifiCorp spokesman Paul Vogel said the company is "negotiating with any number of folks" over the fate of the dams but dismissed Tuesday's announcement because the company was specifically excluded from the negotiations.

"It is difficult to believe that it can be called comprehensive when 700,000 of our customers were not in the room," Vogel said.

Parties to the deal, including farmers, irrigation districts, Indian tribes and fishermen, hope an agreement for removal of the dams can be reached within a month or two to give them time to lobby Congress for final approval.

Participants in the closed talks were largely enthusiastic.

"It's a major step forward on solving some of the most intractable water problems in the West," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents commercial salmon fishermen. "At no time has there been so much unanimity on the river."

Craig Tucker of Northern California's Karuk tribe, a key player in the talks, said the deal will "give fish 300 miles of spawning habitat, increase river flows and do it in a way that that allows farms and fish to survive."

Under the deal, additional water would come into the system through new storage, breaching of some levees, tighter controls on agricultural diversions and retirement of water rights.

But some environmentalists, who also were not part of the 26 parties negotiating the final agreement, called it a "half a deal" that will burden federal taxpayers with millions of dollars for economic assistance unrelated to fish restoration.

"There is some good stuff in here for the river," said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild. "But this is a lot of money $1 billion for every special interest in the Klamath basin."

Some participants, including the Hoopa tribe, were balking at the deal. Other participants are public agencies that will have to hold public hearings before casting a vote on the deal. Tuesday's announcement makes the agreement public so that those public discussions can begin.

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