SACRAMENTO — Federal officials called Tuesday for costly improvements to four Klamath River dams, a move that could hasten removal of a hydropower system that for generations has blocked imperiled salmon from their upriver spawning grounds.
Interior and Commerce Department officials said that in order to get its license renewed, Portland-based PacifiCorp would be required to install fish ladders and screens to ease the salmon's annual migration.
The cost of such improvements could reach $470 million, as much as $285 million more than the cost of removing the dams and replacing their electricity for the next 30 years, according to a government study.
That vast cost discrepancy could put pressure on the power company -- a subsidiary of billionaire Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway empire -- to negotiate a truce with Indian tribes, fishermen and environmentalists pushing for demolition of the towering structures.
The Klamath, which emerges from the snowmelt of the Cascade Range in Oregon and dashes south into California before emptying into the sea north of Eureka, once was the nation's third-most productive salmon river, with up to 1.2 million salmon and steelhead trout joining an epic annual migration to spawn.
Today, the river's coho salmon are on the endangered species list, and its chinook salmon have suffered such steep declines that the 2006 commercial season was virtually shut down on the West Coast.
Activists say decommissioning the hydropower project, which produces enough electricity to light 70,000 homes, could help restore health to a river system hit by water quality problems, fish-killing diseases, diversions for farming and other woes.
"This would represent the largest and most ambitious dam removal project in the country, if not the world," said Steve Rothert of the environmental group American Rivers. "Some dams have been taller, but these on the Klamath cast a bigger footprint on the landscape; 350 miles of upstream habitat would be reopened."
A spokesman for PacifiCorp said the company plans to press ahead with its effort to win a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission but believes a settlement with anti-dam activists and federal agencies could prove the best remedy.
"We never said we wouldn't consider dam removal as an outcome in the settlement process," said Dave Kvamme, a company spokesman. "But there's no silver bullet. There's an assumption that if you take out the dams, the fish will come. That ignores so many other problems on the river."
Last March, federal officials issued a preliminary call for fish ladders, boosting hopes among anti-dam activists.
In the months since then, PacifiCorp has waged a fight to persuade U.S. wildlife agencies to accept its alternative: a plan to trap the adult fish and haul them around the dams. Wildlife officials concluded that the alternative would provide less protection than ladders.
The four dams pose a big obstacle. The tallest rises 157 feet above the river bed, requiring a fish ladder six-tenths of a mile long.
Such long fish ladders have historically been ineffective, PacifiCorp's Kvamme said, with salmon becoming exhausted and confused as they attempt to climb scores of steps.
Company officials are uneasy, meanwhile, about government estimates comparing the costs of keeping the dams with those of demolishing them.
Kvamme said it was impossible to estimate accurately how much replacement energy would cost in coming decades if the hydro dams were razed.
Dam removal, meanwhile, could be far more costly than anyone imagines, Kvamme said. Dealing with the 20 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dams could cost $1.5 billion or more, he said.
Kvamme also said the Klamath's network of tributaries -- among them the Shasta, Scott and Salmon rivers -- all suffer ecological troubles that would not be addressed by dam removal.
Though the company has fought to win license renewal for the dams, it has also participated in regular settlement negotiations for nearly two years with government agencies, Native American tribes, fishermen, farmers and other groups with stakes in the Klamath's health.
The closed-door negotiations have in recent weeks reportedly narrowed the range of potential solutions, prompting anticipation among participants that a slate of solutions could be reached in a compromise.
"I continue to believe that a locally driven, basin-wide approach holds the most promising hope for a comprehensive solution to the river's problems," said Steve Thompson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager for California and Nevada.