PORTLAND — An agreement among users of Central Oregon’s Prineville Reservoir guarantees water for irrigators, allows more water for fish and wildlife habitat, and makes water available for the city of Prineville. Now the deal needs approval from Congress.
The Oregonian reports talks that concluded last week led to an agreement between the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, agricultural interests, Prineville and conservation groups.
The deal was introduced as legislation Friday in the U.S. Senate.
“The heart of this legislation is about improving the economy in Central Oregon by allowing water certainty for all users who depend on and use the Crooked River," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., the bill’s prime sponsor.
Merkley said the agreement includes a way to allocate water during “dry years" that could minimize fights over water.
Past water disputes have seen hostility and angry rhetoric.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, earlier this year introduced legislation that protected water supplies for farmers and ranchers and Prineville. Walden’s bill passed the House unanimously in June, but faced an uncertain future in the Senate. Conservation interests claimed it did not assure enough water for fisheries and talks continued.
The new agreement was helped by the presence of unallocated water in Prinevillle Reservoir and a strong desire to collaborate.
“All of that unallocated water was insurance," said John Ogan, the attorney for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who was involved in the negotiations. “It changed the dynamic of the conversation" because all parties believed they could get enough water to protect their interests.
A model using 68 years of water data helped clarify negotiations.
“We started playing the ‘what if’ game," Ogan said. “We put our trusted experts with their trusted experts and we studied the results."
About 85 percent of the time, the model indicated, all the water demands were fully met.
“We were shocked," Ogan said.
The bill Merkley introduced Friday with fellow Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., contains core elements of Walden’s bill, Merkley said. Merkley said he hopes it will pass in 2012 and take effect for the next growing season.
A spokesman for Walden said the bill is being reviewed.
Gov. John Kitzhaber is backing the bill, as are interest groups that often clash. Kate Miller of Trout Unlimited called the bill “pragmatic" and “creative" in its support of fisheries. Brian Barney, chairman of the Ochoco Irrigation District, said the deal satisfies “farmers and ranchers who rely upon the Crooked River to responsibly grow crops and raise livestock."