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Cataraft on the Klamath River

One of the largest river restoration projects in U.S. history is back on track following two agreements in April to take down four dams along the Klamath River in Northern California.

The path forward is largely in line with a 2010 pact that expired last year after Congressional Republicans refused to act. The deal, struck between federal and state officials from both California and Oregon, lays out a road map for dam demolition by 2020 that bypasses the need for congressional authorization.

“This historic agreement will enable Oregon and California and the interested parties to get these four dams finally removed and the Klamath River restored to its pristine beauty,” said California Governor Jerry Brown at the announcement.

The Klamath River flows through Oregon and California before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. It’s the second largest river in California by average discharge, and is an important stream for migratory fish including salmon and trout. Most of the dams were built along the river in the 1940s and 1950s to provide hydroelectric power.

Tensions have often flared up in the Klamath River basin in the past several decades due to drought conditions and fish die-offs. Water allocations for local ranchers and farmers were severely cut in 2001, while Native American tribes have struggled to maintain salmon harvests.

The utility that owns the dams, Pacific Power, was confronted with the expensive task of either upgrading or dismantling the dams as they began to fail. The company estimated that the cost of installing the necessary fish ladders and other features would be $400 million (U.S.) and reduce power output, making their destruction a more appealing option.

Under the new agreements, Congress will be sidestepped by going through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) instead. Pacific Power will transfer control of four dams it owns to a newly-created non-profit, and then petition the FERC to remove the dams by 2020. The removal process will be funded by up to $250 million from the state of California, as well as a surcharge on utility customers in the area. Two other dams will be transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, under the condition that prices will not be raised for ranchers and farmers using it for irrigation.

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