Supporters of a resolution to one of the West's most protracted water wars made their way to a remote location on the Northern California coast to witness the signing of two major agreements Wednesday that could make history.
The new deals move the region a big step closer to the removal of four dams on the Klamath River, which runs through Southern Oregon and Northern California. It also ensures that farmers will not be financially responsible for restoration of salmon runs once the dams are gone.
In a signing ceremony at the mouth of the Klamath River, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown applauded the efforts of dam owner PacifiCorp and other stakeholders like farmers, fishers and tribes for not walking away from the deal when its prospects looked bleak.
“To all the people of the Klamath, you have found compromise at great risk. You have been courageous against long odds,” said Brown. She was joined by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, California Gov. Jerry Brown and others at the remote Northern California location.
California's Gov. Brown expressed optimism that the agreements signed Wednesday would have a lasting impact.
“The end goal here is the river, the fish and the sustainability. Not for the next election cycle but for eons and thousands of years. That’s the significance here,” he said. “We’re starting to get it right after so many years of getting it wrong. What a beautiful day.”
Jewell took note that she and other dignitaries shared the stage with two long metal tables.
“I can’t think of a better signing table than a fish-cleaning table. That’s just so symbolic,” she said.
The four dams' removal would, by some measures, be the largest project of its kind in U.S. history. It would open 300 miles of historic habitat to imperiled salmon and steelhead.
There are several pieces not included in the deal — an important one being the federal money piece needed for power subsidies for farmers and environmental restoration. That will likely have to be approved by Congress, where many members have been reluctant to support the Klamath agreements previously.
Glen Spain was one of several fishing group leaders to praise Wednesday's action.
"Although there are many other problems still to address in the Klamath Basin, this landmark agreement moves the region much further along toward a major river restoration effort that will recapture thousands of lost jobs, bring greater economic stability to the region, and end nearly 100 years of bitter conflict," said Spain, the Northwest regional director with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Tribes' and farmers' representatives were on hand at the ceremonial event to signal their support. For them, additional steps remain.
Money for a piece of the deal that spares farmers from paying for fish recovery will still have to go through Congress. And there are still land and water issues that still have to be worked out. Farmers want to negotiate a water-sharing arrangement with the Klamath Tribes in Oregon.
In addition, the Klamath Tribes want the federal government to come through with one of the elements of the initial deal: the transfer to the tribes of ownership of land they can then use for economic development. The parcel the Klamaths had identified was sold while everyone was waiting for Congress to act on the original deals. Now a new piece of land has to be found, and the money and the terms to buy it secured.