A panel of experts that will advise the U.S. Interior secretary on the potential removal of four dams on the Klamath River gathered Monday in Eureka to investigate how the massive project might benefit Chinook salmon, the backbone of tribal, sport and commercial fisheries.

The panel will determine how salmon would respond to dam removal and a program to restore habitat and shore up water supplies to farms in the Upper Klamath Basin, or how Chinook would respond if the dams remain in place. The U.S. Interior secretary, based on the information and that of panels on other species, is to decide whether to proceed with dam removal by 2012. The actual project would begin in 2020.

Dennis Lynch with the U.S. Geological Survey, the program manager for the project, said the panel will not have all the information it might like to have and must make decisions based on the best science available. Still, a determination must be made, he said, because of the poor condition of the Klamath River ecosystem.

”I don't think we have the luxury of not making a decision,” Lynch said.

The panel's final report is due at the end of the month.

In February, the governors of California and Oregon, federal and state agencies, several tribes, environmental, farming and fishing groups signed an agreement to remove the dams and embark on a huge restoration effort. That includes limiting the amount of water that can be diverted to upper basin farms, which supporters say will provide more water for fish as well as more certainty for farmers. Detractors have labeled the pact primarily a water deal, and argue that the dams could be removed through other federal regulatory means.

Legislation to implement the agreement has not been introduced in Congress nearly a year later.

William Tinniswood with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife gave an overview of potential salmon spawning habitat above lowermost Iron Gate Dam. The dam severed access to the rich upper basin in 1960, though dams upstream had already been affecting salmon decades earlier. The dams have especially impacted spring Chinook salmon, which are historically believed to have been the dominant run of the river, Tinniswood said. Fall Chinook are now the most abundant.

Hundreds of miles of spawning habitat would be opened to fall and spring Chinook if the dams were removed, including streams like the Wood River, Sevenmile Creek, Crooked Creek, the Williamson River and the Sprague River, which have both cold- and warm-water springs and abundant, if not always perfect, habitat. The reach of the Klamath River above Copco 1 Dam has excellent potential, Tinniswood said.

”That's a fish factory as far as I'm concerned,” he said.

Even Upper Klamath Lake -- which can become oxygen starved due to algae blooms in the summer -- can be good habitat for young salmon migrating downstream, he said. Landlocked Kokanne salmon survive in some areas of the lake, Tinniswood said.

California Department of Fish and Game biologist Sarah Borok gave the panel a rundown on the monitoring methods for Chinook salmon below Iron Gate Dam. The numbers generated by a team of biologists predict the coming year's estimated abundance, which has dramatic effects on how many Chinook can be harvested by tribal, sport and commercial fishermen. The monitoring methods include video weirs, spawning surveys and dive counts.

The average fall Chinook run since the late 1970s has been 121,000, though it has been known to swing widely and is a fraction of the historic estimates. Borok outlined the condition of spring Chinook, as well, which are rare today, and are monitored mainly in the Salmon and South Fork Trinity rivers. The total spring Chinook run is estimated at 22,000 in 2007, 15,000 in 2008 and 12,000 in 2009.

The panel was also scheduled to hear about water quality, fish diseases and engineering issues on Monday. The panel meets again today at the Red Lion Inn on Fourth Street beginning at 9 a.m..