FILE — Klamath Falls Dams

In this March 3, 2020, photo, excess water spills over the top of a dam on the lower Klamath River known as Copco 1 near Hornbrook, California. A plan to demolish four dams on California's second-largest river to benefit threatened salmon has sharpened a decades-old dispute over who has the biggest claim to the river's life-giving waters. The project, if it goes forward, would be the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history and would include the Copco 1 facility pictured. 

(The Center Square) — The four hydroelectric dams sitting on the Klamath River falls are one step closer to demolition after decades of allegations by native tribes and environmentalists that it threatens salmon runs.

A new deal announced on Tuesday will see Oregon and California partner up with the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, a nonprofit, to pay the hefty price for demolishing the structures. 

The dams’ removal is estimated to cost $493 million, according to a 2013 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That number exceeded the previous $450 million limit California and Oregon agreed to earlier this year.

The dams block roughly 420 miles of potential salmon habitats, federal researchers wrote, and have some effect on fostering local algal toxins hazardous to resident fish.

That study included a survey of the 12-county Klamath area which found that 38.5% of respondents said they got their electric power from the dams.

Another 57.9% of respondents said they used the Klamath river for boating or rafting while 48.8% said they swam there. About 10.5% said they conducted religious ceremonies there.

Respondents overwhelming agreed that that the river was important for electric power (48%), recreation (73%), fish habitats (92%), irrigation (92%), and to provide native tribes with traditional fishing areas (59%).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigators wrote in the study that they could not determine what effect the dams' removal would have on native fish populations due to changing weather and ocean conditions.

The dams are operated by the Berkshire Hathaway-owned utility company, PacifiCorp, which will split the demolition costs three ways with California and Oregon.

PacifiCorp will relinquish the license to run the dams to the two states and Klamath Renewal until the dams are put out of commission. The nonprofit will handle the work of dismantling the four dams.

This new deal awaits the green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The news comes as dams all over the Pacific Northwest face scrutiny from federal regulators and environmental groups regarding their economic efficiency and environmental impact.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.