This March 16, 2004 picture shows the Copco No. 1 dam on the Klamath River…
SACRAMENTO — The Bush administration announced a nonbinding agreement Thursday to uproot four hydropower dams that have blocked the migration of imperiled salmon up the troubled Klamath River, a project that could amount to the biggest dam removal in history.
But the deal, which could require fiscally strapped California to finance $250 million of the demolition costs, came under immediate attack from foes who called it a scheme riddled with loopholes that favor farmers and other allies of the outgoing president.
The agreement in principal was signed by officials from the Department of the Interior, the states of California and Oregon, and PacifiCorp, the Portland, Ore., utility that owns the dams. It commits all sides to work toward dam removal by 2020.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the deal represents a "path forward" that he hopes will bring "a vision of peace, finally, in the Klamath Basin."
The river has been the focus of a long and volatile water war pitting the needs of farmers against the survival of endangered fish. Howls of protest erupted when authorities shut off irrigation deliveries during the drought of 2001. Restoration of those diversions in 2002 was blamed for the deaths of 70,000 adult salmon returning to spawn.
In the years since, conditions on the Klamath River have been implicated in a steep salmon decline that has undercut the West Coast commercial fishing industry.
Under the deal, PacifiCorp would contribute as much as $200 million toward dam removal and river restoration, with the money coming from boosted electricity rates for customers in the Pacific Northwest.
California would be on the hook for any cost overrun, and would finance the additional expenses through a $250-million bond measure it would have to put before voters, according to the plan.
Greg Abel, PacifiCorp chairman, said rates could rise as much as 2%. Meanwhile, the agreement gives the company protection from liability and allows time to find replacement power.
Backers of the deal expressed optimism, but noted that a number of tricky steps remain.
"We have not popped the champagne cork yet, but we have put a bottle on ice," said Rebecca Wodder, president of the nonprofit group American Rivers.
A final agreement is to be signed by June 30. That would launch an intense scientific and economic analysis to determine if dam removal is feasible and cost-effective, a process to be concluded with a decision by the Interior secretary in March 2012.
The deal also calls on Congress to approve a $1-billion restoration package for the river basin that won broad support in the region earlier this year. Some environmental groups say that accord bends too far to deliver abundant water and cheap power to farmers.
PacifiCorp, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has been under mounting pressure to demolish the dams. West Coast lawmakers, among them Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, called for dam removal after the Klamath's salmon runs slumped deeply in 2006.
Last year, federal biologists required PacifiCorp to install fish ladders -- a tricky engineering feat expected to cost at least $300 million -- before the company could get a new license to continue operating the dams.
California has been conducting an ongoing review of water quality problems caused by the dams, which are blamed for a toxic stew of blue-green algae bedeviling the river.
Foes of the agreement said it makes no sense to strike a deal weeks before Barack Obama becomes president.
"It's just nutty to commit to this with Bush heading out the door," said Tom Schlosser, an attorney for the Hoopa tribe of Northern California.
He and other foes say PacifiCorp might exploit the agreement as a delaying tactic, arguing that the deal has loopholes that allow the company to back out as late as 2012.
In the meantime, they said, the agreement will essentially shut down California's water quality hearings on the Klamath dams.
Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild said the deal also links dam removal to the $1-billion restoration package he believes favors farmers over fish.
"This has been a well-orchestrated campaign by the Bush administration taking advantage of a desire for dam removal to sell another package that's actually bad for salmon and wildlife," he said.