Op-Ed: Crooked River bill satisfies most stakeholder needs

Op-Ed: Crooked River bill satisfies most stakeholder needs

Bend Bulletin
Aug 15, 2012

As reported, Rep. Greg Walden introduced a similar measure in the House earlier this year. Merkley’s bill incorporates and builds on many elements from Walden’s bill.

One element is to allocate water from Prineville Reservoir to the city of Prineville. Everyone acknowledges that Prineville needs more water. There is no controversy on this topic.

Another broadly supported element is to move the Wild and Scenic boundary from the top of Bowman Dam one-quarter mile downstream. While no plans are firmly in place, this boundary move may allow for a hydro power plant to be installed. Both bills allow for the long process of review and permitting to begin, but there is no immediate creation of new jobs.

Both bills allow for farmland bordering McKay Creek to be incorporated into the Ochoco Irrigation District and provide various contract changes that will allow the district to participate in water conservation programs in the future.

One element of Walden’s bill, however, was of concern to local sportsmen. Specifically, Walden’s bill provided even greater control of the water in Prineville Reservoir to Crook County irrigators. In some scenarios, there would not be enough water in the Crooked River to support fish. The survival of resident trout and whitefish, as well as newly reintroduced salmon and steelhead, could be imperiled. To be fair, Walden’s bill does provide for improved flows in McKay Creek, a historically important spawning ground for steelhead, but it does so at the expense of water in the Crooked River.

For this reason, a coalition of local, state, and national angling and conservation groups banded together to ask that negotiations continue. Local organizations included Central Oregon Flyfishers, Deschutes Trout Unlimited, Sunriver Anglers and Deschutes Basin NW Steelheaders. State and national groups included WaterWatch, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, Association of NW Steelheaders, Native Fish Society and National Wildlife Federation.

Merkley heard our concerns, took a strong leadership role and worked diligently for many months to build on Walden’s bill. Merkley ultimately crafted a compromise solution that is acceptable to all stakeholders: the city of Prineville, hydro power operators, Crook County irrigators and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, as well as angling and conservation organizations.

Merkley’s bill alleviates concerns in the conservation community by providing a major breakthrough for fish and wildlife, without taking anything from irrigators. It legislates that all water in Prineville Reservoir not allocated to the city of Prineville or currently allocated to irrigators be managed for the benefit of downstream fish and wildlife. Water will now be stored for the benefit of fish and wildlife and released when they need it most.

The nature of compromise means that the bill does not completely satisfy everyone, and some in the conservation community do not think it goes far enough. Irrigators maintain and even increase their priority access to water. In low water years, there may not be enough water to go around and fish may be on the losing end. But with the ability to store and release water specifically for the benefit of fish, managers should be able to make adequate plans to alleviate most drought impacts.

This story is not over. The bill must make its way through the Senate and then it must be reconciled with the House version. We hope that Walden can work with all stakeholders to ensure the compromise bill, one that builds on the solid foundation of his original bill, is passed into law.

— Yancy Lind is the president of the Deschutes Basin Chapter, Association of NW Steelheaders.