SACRAMENTO -- After more than three years of negotiations, a collection of long-quarreling Klamath Basin farmers, fishermen and tribes announced a breakthrough agreement Tuesday that they said could lead to the nation's most extensive dam-removal project.
The $1-billion plan proposes to end one of the West's fiercest water wars by reviving the Klamath River's flagging salmon population while ensuring irrigation water and cheap power for farmers in the basin, which straddles the Oregon-California state line.
The company that owns the four dams in the basin -- billionaire Warren Buffett's PacifiCorp -- was excluded from negotiations and did not sign on. But participants heralded the hard-fought agreement as a sprawling, basin-wide solution that united factions long at odds over the fate of the troubled river.
"Never has the basin been so unified around the necessity for removal of those dams," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns.
Two environmental groups and a Northern California tribe balked at the blueprint, calling it a Bush administration sellout to agribusiness allies. Clifford Lyle Marshall, chairman of the holdout Hoopa Valley Tribe, said the proposal favors farmers over the river's fish and labeled it "an Old West irrigation deal: guarantees for irrigators, empty promises for the Indians."
"The ironic thing is there's not even dam removal in this dam-removal deal," said Bob Hunter of WaterWatch of Oregon, one of the two dissenting environmental groups, both of which were excluded from the negotiations last year. "It seems they released it now because time is running out for the Bush administration to deliver to its political allies in the Klamath farm community."
PacifiCorp officials also took exception to the proposal.
Paul Vogel, a PacifiCorp spokesman, said the company initiated the talks as part of its bid for a new federal operating license for the dams. But he said PacifiCorp was "shut out of the room" for most of the last year as the final plan was cobbled together by more than two dozen state, federal and local government agencies, tribes and other groups.
"You really have to question if there's enough substance there to be worth the paper it's printed on," he said.
The federal government's chief negotiator at the talks, Steve Thompson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he participated free of political influence from the White House and continues to hold out hope that PacifiCorp will sign on to the proposal in coming weeks.
But critics, including Hunter, suggested that the deal could prompt PacifiCorp to lay its money on winning renewal from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The commission is expected to follow the lead of U.S. wildlife agencies, which have required the company to build fish ladders over the dams. Those ladders could cost up to $300 million and might not work. Several studies suggest it would be cheaper for the company to demolish the dams and find alternative power.
The Klamath River Basin has been an epicenter of the fight over dwindling water in the West for a decade.
In the drought year of 2001, worries about endangered fish prompted the federal government to cut back water to farmers, igniting a heated summerlong protest.
The next year farmers won more water, but environmentalists blamed a cutback in river flows for the death of 70,000 salmon.
By 2006, the river's chinook salmon population had declined so much that federal officials sharply cut back the commercial fishing season, spreading dismay to coastal communities.
At the same time, those representing the Klamath region's competing interests began trying to settle their differences behind closed doors. Meeting roughly once a month, they quarreled in secret but slowly reached the consensus that yielded the final draft released Tuesday.
Farmers won the three prime concessions they had sought. The agreement establishes water deliveries they can live with: more in wet years, less in dry. It provides $40 million toward subsidized power to run irrigation pumps and develop renewable energy to replace the electricity they now get from PacifiCorp's hydropower dams. And it assuages their concerns that the reappearance of endangered salmon won't end up shutting down farms in the upper basin "if and when the fish get up here," said Greg Addington of the Klamath Water Users Assn.
Steve Rothert of American Rivers, one of several environmental groups that endorsed the deal, said he was confident that even with guaranteed water for farming, the agreement guarantees adequate flows in the river to help salmon rebound.
"We are on the cusp of ending decades-long disputes and charting a better future for farmers, tribes, fishermen and all the communities that depend on a healthy Klamath River," he said.
The dissenting environmental groups disagree, saying the agreement cements promises to farmers that in dry years could rob the river of water needed to sustain the salmon and other fish.
"What began as an effort to help salmon and remove dams has turned into a plan to farm American taxpayers," said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, the other dissenting group.
He said the plan also institutionalizes "large-scale commercial agriculture" on 22,000 acres in Klamath wildlife refuges, which his group has fought to see reserved just for birds.
The plan goes far beyond fixing the river. It calls, for instance, for the purchase of a 90,000-acre tract for the Klamath Tribes of Oregon for use as a reservation.