WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Tuesday that would authorize the release of some of the unallocated water behind Bowman Dam.
The legislation, introduced in July by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, would allow 5,100 acre-feet of unallocated water behind the dam to flow into the Crooked River, which would enable Prineville to seek permission from the state to pump more groundwater for its own use. It also moves the Wild and Scenic River boundary line about a quarter-mile down the river, away from its current location in the center of Bowman Dam.
The change would open the 240-foot-high dam to hydropower development, which could bring as many as 50 new construction jobs over two years, according to Walden.
“This is a good, solid piece of legislation that solves a community problem and needs to move forward,” Walden said Tuesday after the vote.
The House passed an identical bill during the previous Congress, but similar legislation introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., languished in the Senate and never received a vote by the full chamber.
This time, Walden hopes the Senate will develop and pass its own bill, and the two versions can be reconciled.
“We’re poised to work something out. I think this is a positive step forward,” he said.
The previous Senate version also authorized the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the flow of water from the dam, to consult with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the state of Oregon and release as much of the roughly 80,000 unallocated acre-feet — about half the water in the reservoir — deemed necessary to promote healthy fish and fisheries downstream, where steelhead have been reintroduced. This provision is absent from Walden’s bill, which costs it the support of WaterWatch of Oregon and other conservation groups.
“(The) bill does virtually nothing for fish,” said Kimberley Priestley, WaterWatch’s senior policy analyst. “In fact, by granting first-fill rights for irrigation districts, it actually goes backwards.”
The 2012 Senate bill was more balanced, and drew from a broad coalition of local support, she said.
“We will be looking to leadership on the Senate side to address serious deficiencies in Rep. Walden’s legislation,” she said.
Other local stakeholders were pleased that Walden’s Bowman Dam bill was making progress.
“We have high hopes that this will stimulate the Senate bill to get through soon,” said Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe. She said she spoke with Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, to encourage them to support Walden’s bill.
The extra water in the river would offset the groundwater Prineville wants to pump to provide water for hundreds of additional homes in the city, and make it attractive to additional tech companies. Facebook and Apple already have established local facilities.
“We have about 500 homes on shallow wells with septic systems on small lots,” Roppe said. Some don’t want to be on the city water system, but there’s a possibility that the health department will require the city to provide them with water, she said.
Even with the jobs associated with the tech companies, the area still has very high unemployment, she said.
“We really think this (water bill) will help us with our climb out of the recession,” she said.
Crook County Judge Mike McCabe said it was a good day for Prineville and Crook County.
“It’s paramount that the Senate come through with companion legislation,” he said. “It doesn’t cost the government anything.”
Flatwater anglers and other recreational users of the Prineville Reservoir have expressed concerns the Senate version would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to drain the reservoir so low it would be unusable.
The Bureau of Reclamation estimates 575,000 visitors use the Prineville Reservoir and surrounding area each year, pumping $6.7 million into the region’s economy.
Other parts of Walden’s bill aim to jump-start restoration efforts for McKay Creek by authorizing the Ochoco Irrigation District to provide water to small farms on the upper part of the creek.
Walden said he is open to amendments and revisions to his bill, but that it is important to get the legislative process moving.
“Let’s face it, we’re going to run out of legislative days pretty quickly, and I didn’t want to have happen this time what happened last time,” he said, referring to the Bowman Dam legislation that expired at the end of the 112th Congress.
Earlier Tuesday, Walden attended a scheduling meeting with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., where he was reminded how quickly it will be 2014. During the election year, there will be a normal number of legislative days, but lots of energy will be expended elsewhere, he said.
“It’s not an unlimited timeline (and there will be) a lot of other priorities,” he said.