A solution to Prineville’s water troubles is tantalizingly close, once again having reached the point where full U.S. Senate action is the next crucial step.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Sen. Jeff Merkley’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, which could break the longtime logjam about Crooked River water held behind Bowman Dam. The bill now goes to the full Senate, as it has done before without ever coming to a vote.
If our senators can secure the critical Senate approval, the measure will still need reconciliation with Rep. Greg Walden’s House-passed version.
Both bills provide long-needed fixes for critical local water issues, worked out through local compromises. The legislation would fix a decades-old error in which a part of the Bowman Dam was designated as wild and scenic. There’s agreement it was an error, but failure to fix that mistake is blocking development of hydropower and the 50 jobs that would bring. Also, the legislation would allow the release of water to solve a shortage in the city of Prineville, where 500 homes are using shallow wells and septic systems.
The contentious difference between the two bills concerns a potential conflict between water for downstream fish and water for fish and recreation at Prineville Reservoir. Merkley’s version allows that after allocations to irrigators, the city and others are satisfied, all remaining water can be used to benefit downstream fish and wildlife. Recreationists and flatwater fishermen worry the reservoir won’t be protected. Walden’s bill does not include that provision.
First and foremost, our senators must use their influence to ensure that the bill is scheduled for a vote and that it passes. Then all parties must find compromise on the differences between the two bills. We favor Walden’s approach, but a middle ground is surely possible. Too many critical needs are being held hostage in this conflict.