Local fish interests go to D.C. to ask for a waiver
WASHINGTON — A group of Central Oregon irrigators, government officials and dam owners asked federal officials Tuesday for time to gauge the impacts of reintroducing endangered fish, in meetings in Washington, D.C.
They made their request to delay potentially harsh penalties that could otherwise be imposed for accidentally killing steelhead.
Representatives of local governments and irrigation districts met with federal officials and congressmen, as part of their trip Tuesday and today.
Their purpose is twofold: First, to keep agencies and elected officials up to date on progress in the area, and second, to pave the way for funding requests down the line.
Ultimately the idea is to avoid the fish-versus-farmers conflict that tore apart Klamath Falls earlier this decade.
“We want to be accepting of the fish,” said Central Oregon Irrigation District Manager Steve Johnson, who came on behalf of irrigation districts. “We want that to succeed.”
The steelhead reintroduction is a condition of the new federal license for the Pelton-Round Butte dams, owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Portland General Electric. Steelhead have not lived in their traditional spawning grounds since the dams were built in the 1960s.
Steelhead were reintroduced to Wychus Creek, near Sisters, this year and are scheduled to be reintroduced to the Crooked River next year. Irrigators are working with federal regulators, environmental groups and the dam owners to judge how farming uses of water could potentially conflict with fish.
Crook County Judge Scott Cooper, who also made the trip, said groups are already working to improve the Crooked River habitat and water quality to prepare for the steelhead.
“The pace of it is going to escalate with the reintroduction of the fish,” Cooper said.
Those improvements on the Crooked River and elsewhere in Central Oregon will cost money, Cooper said, which he hopes the federal government will at least partially fund. That request is a few years off, but he and Johnson said they don’t want it to surprise Oregon’s elected officials when they make it.
Developing a plan for improving Central Oregon streams and dividing water between irrigators and fish could take up to seven years, said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Bend-based Deschutes River Conservancy. That’s why even environmental groups have agreed that accidental fish deaths should be forgiven — at least for a little while.
“We’re all doing good work together, and we don’t want third-party lawsuits to come out and have everybody locked down and everything stopped,” said Heisler, who was not on the trip to Washington. “There’s no absolute consensus on how long the (exemption) should be,” Heisler said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has never issued the possibly several-year exemption the irrigation districts are asking for, said Scott Carlon, a biologist for the Fisheries Service.
A Portland representative of WaterWatch, an environmental group, confirmed that the group is taking part in planning for the fish reintroduction, but declined to comment on the process.
Two main causes of accidental fish deaths could be unscreened irrigation ditches, where fish can become trapped, or streams where too much water has been withdrawn for steelhead to survive, Carlon said.
“Any areas where we’ve got severe de-watering of streams where these fish are in can be a water-quality issue if they don’t escape,” Carlon said.
Right now, the Deschutes Resources Board of Control, a consortium of seven Central Oregon irrigation districts, is exempt from prosecution for accidental fish deaths, under a letter issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator, Carlon said.
That letter, which was issued a few months ago, lasts for a year, but could be renewed at the administrator’s discretion, Carlon said.
“I give a lot of credit to Steve (Johnson) and the irrigation districts out there for trying to make this work,” Carlon said. “They just want to have some certainty that their future isn’t destroyed by this reintroduction.”
Also as part of their trip, districts are plugging their application for a more than $300,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pay for some costs associated with the reintroduction planning process, Johnson said.