The four dams on the Klamath River would be torn out beginning in 2020 under a complex compromise released Tuesday by their owner, tribes, the United States, Oregon and California and fishing, farming and environmental groups.

It would be the largest river restoration project in the world, and its supporters see it as key to reviving the salmon fishery on one of the West Coast's most important rivers. Dam owner Pacificorp and 28 other parties announced the deal which will be final once signed by their governing boards, expected sometime in December.

The four dams - Iron Gate, Copco 1, Copco 2 and J.C. Boyle - produce a marginal amount of power. The dams were built between 1908 and 1962. They block some 300 miles of salmon spawning grounds and are believed to be responsible for the severe reduction in the Klamath's key spring chinook salmon fishery.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently found that Pacificorp's customers stand to save $15 million a year by decommissioning the dams instead of paying the cost to bring them up to federal standards.

A recently passed bill in the Oregon Legislature will direct up to $200 million from Pacificorp's customers into an account to pay part of the estimated $75 million to $175 million for dam removal and restoration. As part of the agreement, Pacificorp will modify its operation of the hydropower project until the dam removal effort begins.

Should the project exceed $200 million, California would need a bond of up to $250 million to help pay the costs, which cannot exceed $450 million total. Any surplus funds would be returned to customers.

"This agreement marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Klamath River and for the communities whose health and way of life depend on it," said U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a statement.

The agreement is also tied to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which aims to shore up water supplies for fish and for farms in the Upper Klamath Basin, as well as a number of other restoration efforts.

Yurok Tribe policy analyst Troy Fletcher said that the agreement comes after years of work - and that work isn't over. Fletcher said that studies, permits and the formulation of a general obligation bond for California remain big issues ahead. But the agreement is a milestone, he said. "It represents a significant step toward restoring the Klamath River and the Klamath River's fisheries," Fletcher said.

The draft agreement calls for a suite of studies to determine whether removing the dams is in the public's interest, and for development of a plan to manage dam removal operations, provide for restoration and prevent downstream effects of the project. The Interior Department will make the determination to go ahead with dam removal by March 2012. The dams would be transferred to a dam removal entity to manage the permitting, preparation and organization of the project.

Pacificorp Chairman and CEO Greg Abel said that the federal government and Oregon and California have made it clear that they want to pursue dam removal.

"We have negotiated with them and the numerous stakeholders in good faith to keep our customers out of legal harm's way and keep the costs and risks as low as possible when compared against the costs of relicensing the dams," Abel said.

Steve Rothert with the conservation group American Rivers said that while he would like to have seen the time table for dam removal tightened, it's not unreasonable that additional studies are done and time is given to obtain funding.

"To be perfectly frank, it's a settlement agreement and by its very nature it's a compromise," Rothert said.

The agreement requires federal legislation and legislation in California and Oregon, which is under development by the negotiation group. Under the proposed legislation the project would continue to be operated under its FERC license, and the decommissioning of the dams would be authorized. "Although I haven't seen the agreement, momentum is good," said Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. "A lot of time and energy has been put into resolving this very complex issue, and I want to encourage all of the stakeholders to keep moving forward because so much depends on it." Jay Wright, Klamath coordinator for the Northcoast Environmental Center, said that the organization continues to oppose the notion that both the dam removal agreement and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement must be signed together. But he added that the recently released dam removal deal is an improvement over the agreement in principal proposed earlier, and a better deal than would have been realized under FERC relicensing.

"I'd say we've left our options open," Wright said.

The agreement also guards Pacificorp against liability for any damages that might occur as the result of dam removal, but not against conditions caused by the continued operations of the dams until then.

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations President Dave Bitts, also a Eureka commercial fisherman, said that his group's board will have a thorough discussion about the details of the agreement before it decides to support it. He said that there is no doubt that removing the dams is critical.

"I think most of us know we will never have any kind of hope to have decent water quality and salmon in the river without dam removal," Bitts said.

John Driscoll covers natural resources/industry. He can be reached at 441-0504 or jdriscoll@times-standard.com.