A diverse group of fishermen, farmers, tribes, agencies and environmental groups have announced a tentative agreement to remove dams on the Klamath River, restore salmon and settle agonizing conflicts that have for years split the basin.

It would be the biggest dam removal project in history and one of the most ambitious fisheries restoration efforts ever. The pact calls for removing four dams on the Klamath, securing water and power for farms, and restoring salmon runs.

The deal struck by 26 groups and aired Tuesday has yet to be endorsed by their governing bodies, and negotiations are needed with dam owner Pacificorp regarding the removal of the dams.

While huge hurdles remain, notably finding hundreds of millions of dollars to put the agreement in place, the negotiations represent a watershed in compromise between once-bitter opponents.

On a conference call with the groups, Craig Tucker with the Karuk Tribe said that the parties agreed to civil talks when it was clear that the resources of the river would have to be shared. He called the settlement a means to do that.

”I call it the fish and chips settlement,” Tucker said, referring to potato farming in the basin. “We can have both.”

The plan calls for support of a separate agreement to remove Iron Gate, J.C. Boyle, Copco 1 and Copco 2 dams, which cut off about 300 miles of salmon spawning habitat in the upper Klamath River. It also proposes reintroducing fish like chinook and coho salmon, steelhead and lamprey to those areas and managing them with an eye toward making them self-sustaining populations.

The announcement comes nearly seven years after the federal government cut off water to many farms around Upper Klamath Lake to spare coho salmon in the river and suckers in the lake. The next year, water was crimped to fish to provide full water supplies to irrigators. The events were lightning rods for already simmering conflicts, and sparked a bitter water war.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is currently considering Pacificorp's request for a new license for the dams, which could last 30 to 50 years. Commission staff have recommended keeping the dams in place, and trucking fish around the dams in a effort to restore fisheries. The settlement could supplant the commission process.

Pacificorp has reached settlement agreements in other watersheds, and has said it is interested in settling on the Klamath if it's feasible and economical. A proposal has been pitched to Pacificorp, said Chuck Bonham with Trout Unlimited, but its contents are confidential.

The proposal looks for $985 million over the next decade, not including another $150 million expected to be needed for dam removal. Some of that money can be found be reallocating funds from existing state and federal programs, according to the settlement group. Dam removal may need to be covered by Pacificorp's ratepayers and could be cheaper than putting fish passage provisions in place on the existing dams, Bonham said.

A permanent increase in the amount of water available to fish would be secured as part of a long-term plan drafted by a group of irrigation districts in the Upper Klamath Basin. Some of that water would be made available by reducing irrigation use, retiring water rights on upper tributaries and improving storage by breaching levees in the Williamson River delta, reconnecting the Barnes and Agency Lake ranches and reconnecting Wood River Wetlands to Agency Lake. The agreement also lays out obligatory allocations for wildlife refuges in the upper basin -- rich havens for waterfowl and bald eagles.

A drought plan and an investigation into how climate change will affect fish and communities in the river basin would be authorized, as well as a monitoring effort to track populations of fish. The groups agreed to a permanent limitation on the amount of water taken from Upper Klamath Lake, and crafted assurances to irrigators using a variety of approaches including increased efficiency, land and water acquisitions and water storage projects.

Greg Addington with the Klamath Water Users Association, which represents farmers that use the federal irrigation project in the upper basin, said the settlement stakes out a huge amount of middle ground and has provided an opportunity to gain some certainty. The status quo is a frightening place to be for irrigators in the Upper Klamath Basin, Addington said.

”We live here, we live with the results, with the resource,” Addington said. “We're dependent on it -- we want healthy communities.”

Substantial details need to be worked out, said Erica Terence with the Northcoast Environmental Center in a separate phone interview. The plan represents an enormous shift, she said, but does not promise to be able to fully restore the watershed.

”It represents an incremental step in the right direction,” Terence said.

Costs are enormous, she said, and until the separate but integral hydropower agreement is solidified, it would be premature for the center to sign off on the plan.

Water supply and regulatory certainty that would be provided to farmers in the upper basin are critical areas that Terence said would require the center to conduct a thorough legal review.

Other environmental groups no longer part of the talks criticized the agreement as lacking guarantees for dam removal and water for fish, and for securing farming on wildlife refuges in the upper basin.

”While the package has important fisheries restoration components that are needed in the basin, the total package is so loaded up with special interest giveaways to agribusiness that it is hard to see how it could credibly move through congress,” said Bob Hunter with the group WaterWatch in a statement.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Steve Thompson said that while the Bush administration hasn't reviewed the details of the plan, it has been supportive of his efforts in the basin talks.

The groups vowed to turn over every stone to find the political and financial support needed to make the deal happen. Troy Fletcher, a policy analyst for the Yurok Tribe, said the settlement has the potential to manage the watershed holistically and provide more than the minimum needs of fish on a year-to-year basis. The agreement only works if the four dams are removed, he said.

”We're prepared to do our part, roll our sleeves up and get to work on restoring fish in the basin,” Fletcher said.

California Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa -- “I want to congratulate the members of the Klamath Settlement Group. This agreement represents their hard work and best efforts to put aside one of the most contentious and bitter wars over water.”

Luther Horsley, president, Klamath Water Users Association -- “We look forward to working together with the entire watershed.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena -- “I'm especially pleased that their solution includes taking down all the dams. I've said since the beginning that it's both the best thing for the river and the most cost-effective solution. But we can't move forward until Pacificorp comes to the table and is ready to do what's best for the environment and our local economy by taking down the dams.”

Hoopa Valley Tribe Chairman Clifford Lyle Marshall -- “What began as dam removal negotiations got turned into a water deal. Pacificorp left the room two years ago and negotiations with the company have since been separated from this negotiation. The terms of this so-called restoration agreement make the right to divert water for irrigation the top priority, trumping salmon water needs and the best available science on the river.”

Steve Rothert, American Rivers -- “We applaud the hard work and commitment of all the partners in hammering out this agreement. It proves that when people with very different interests work together in good faith, real solutions are possible.”

John Driscoll can be reached at 441-0504 or jdriscoll@times-standard.com.