Editorial: Bowman Dam bills need prompt attention

Published Nov 13, 2012 at 04:00AM

Literally years of work could go for naught if the U.S. Senate fails to act on Sen. Jeff Merkley’s Bowman Dam bill in the next few weeks. It must be reconciled with Rep. Greg Walden’s version of the same legislation, then approved in both houses, all before Congress adjourns in December.

If that doesn’t happen, new members in the new Congress will have to start all over again next year.

The problem is simple. The Crooked River, across which Bowman Dam sits, has been designated wild and scenic under federal law.

Unfortunately, in what all now say was a mistake, the boundary marking the end of the designation runs through the middle of the dam, limiting what may be done with the water behind it. Without the change, Portland General Electric cannot build a proposed hydropower-generating plant.

The bills by Merkley, D-Ore., and Walden, R-Hood River, agree on that point. They disagree on some details of another issue: freeing water currently held behind the dam for irrigation and other uses.

Both also would give the city of Prineville the ability to expand its access to groundwater, something it badly needs. But Merkley’s bill also puts more emphasis on using water for downstream fish and wildlife, and it isn’t particularly clear on how conflicts among competing needs would be resolved.

Those are the sorts of disagreements that a conference committee should be able to resolve, once the Senate version of the measure passes.

It would be a shame to have to start all over again, particularly because the matter is so critical to Prineville and Crook County, which still struggle with the state’s highest unemployment rate. Without adequate water, the city cannot attract the businesses it needs to change that.

The city doesn’t have another nine years — the time already spent on getting the river’s designation changed — to wait for its economy to improve. It needs help now, and the Merkley/Walden bills offer the best chance of providing it. If, that is, the work can be done before the end of the year.