Bowman Dam bill clears Senate hurdle

Committee approves bill reallocating water in Prineville Reservoir

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

Published Jun 19, 2014 at 12:01AM

Bill in Congress — S.1771 The Crooked River Collaborative Water Security Act of 2013

Sponsors: Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both D-Ore.

History: Introduced Nov. 21, 2013, passed out of committee Wednesday

Central Oregon impact: Would authorize release of unallocated water in Prineville Reservoir; would also move scenic river boundary line away from middle of dam, enabling hydropower development

What’s next: Goes to full Senate for a passage vote

Online: Read the bill at thomas.loc.gov/home/bills_res.html .

WASHINGTON — The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved a bill Wednesday that would authorize the release of unallocated water behind Bowman Dam and create a water management plan for dry years.

The Crooked River Collaborative Water Security Act would enable the release of 5,100 acre-feet of water into the Crooked River, which would allow the city of Prineville to use the extra water in the river to offset groundwater needed to supply an additional 500 homes in the city. Those homes are currently using shallow wells and septic systems.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and cosponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would also move a Wild and Scenic boundary line from the middle of the dam about a quarter of a mile down the river. This administrative change would open the 240-foot-high dam to hydropower development, which proponents say could bring 50 construction jobs to the area for two years.

Stakeholders would also create a dry year management plan to help decide whether and how much additional water should be released at other times. This provision would authorize 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.

The bill now heads to the Senate floor for an as-yet unscheduled passage vote.

“This legislation is all about providing water certainty and laying a foundation for economic growth in Prineville and across Central Oregon,” said Merkley in a prepared statement. “The stakeholders have done great work in coming together around a common vision after years of division.”

Wyden said the bill is an example of Oregon managing Oregon’s business.

“This bill uses an innovative approach, supported by the community of Prineville, local irrigators who will gain certainty for their livelihoods and conservation groups and the Warm Springs Tribes due to the benefits to fish and wildlife,” Wyden said in a prepared statement.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, offered an amendment to the bill that would have removed the allocation of additional water under the locally created management plan.

“The difficulty I have with this is that the bill appropriates all the water in the river,” he said. “What happens in Oregon, as far as I’m concerned, is Oregon’s business. The difficulty is that this is going to be used as a precedent.”

Wyden, a former chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, strongly opposed Risch’s amendment.

“(It) would really gut the balance struck by local stakeholders” and would mean Washington was dictating how to manage a local Oregon issue, he said.

Risch’s amendment was defeated in a voice vote.

If the bill passes the Senate, it must be reconciled with the version passed unanimously by the House of Representatives in October. That bill, introduced by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, contains many of the same provisions as the Senate version, minus the authorization to release additional water beyond the 5,100 acre-feet.

When he introduced the bill, Merkley said his office has been in continuous discussion with stakeholders over how to address their concerns. Conservationists worried that giving irrigators first-fill rights would harm fish in dry years, while flatwater fishermen worried that releasing too much water from behind the dam would hurt recreational activities on the reservoir.

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.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com