By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

YREKA, Calif. -- The bill that would formally authorize the removal of four dams from the Klamath River and numerous fisheries restoration efforts was introduced today in Congress.

The legislation by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., would enable the U.S. Department of the Interior to implement the two water-sharing agreements formed by more than 30 governmental and tribal entities and announced in February 2010.

The bill would establish a formal planning process for removing the dams, which the government asserts would create as many as 4,600 jobs in the Klamath Basin, and pave the way for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's anticipated feasibility determination next spring.

The dam removals and environmental restoration efforts are expected to cost nearly $1.1 billion, including $536 million in federal funds.

"This has been a real marathon of collaborative work," said Merrill, Ore., hay and grain producer Steve Kandra, who helped form the agreements after having sued the federal government over the 2001 water shutoff that left farms without water during the height of irrigation season.

"It has always been contentious and it has always been controversial, but it is ultimately how things are going to be resolved among the parties in the Klamath Basin," Kandra said. "We need to have the public discussion about it, and this bill brings that discussion to the policymakers in Washington, D.C.

"For us it's about time," he said. "Let's get with it."

The bill marks another major milestone for the Klamath project, which seeks to resolve a century-old fight over limited water in the basin that straddles the Oregon-California line but has drawn opposition from many residents in the region.

The legislation comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking written comments through Nov. 21 on the project's environmental analyses, which claim that removing the four hydroelectric dams could help to significantly increase salmon harvests without directly affecting farmers' water supplies in the basin.

The authorizing legislation faces an uncertain future -- particularly in the House of Representatives, where Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., and others have voiced strong opposition. McClintock, who earlier this year authored amendments to strip $1.9 million for Klamath River dam removal studies from a stopgap spending measure, called the project "madness" during a floor speech in September.

"It's going to be an uphill climb for it in Congress, but it's been an uphill climb for us since day one," said project proponent Craig Tucker, the Karuk Tribe's Klamath coordinator. "Nothing we've done here has been easy, and we don't expect it to be easy moving forward."

Online

Klamath Economic Restoration Act: http://www.klamathrestoration.org/images/stories/pdfs/11-8-11_Klamath_Legislation_Draft_END11921.pdf

Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement studies and EIS/EIR: http://klamathrestoration.gov

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