April 11, 2008 - Bend Bulletin Plans Back in Play After Year Stuck in DC

Apr 11, 2008

April 11, 2008 - Bend Bulletin Plans Back in Play After Year Stuck in DC

Published: April 11, 2008
 
Water plans back in play after year stuck in D.C.
Deschutes, Jefferson counties set to benefit from legislation
By James Sinks / The Bulletin
  
   
Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., both praised passage of legislation that will clear the way for the lining of irrigation canals between Bend and Madras. After more than a year in limbo, federal legislation that will clear the way for the lining of irrigation canals between Bend and Madras lurched back into gear Thursday after a senator from Oklahoma dropped his procedural hold on the bill and allowed a vote to occur.

The package of natural resource proposals — which also includes authorization for the Deschutes River Conservancy to seek federal grants for the first time since 2006 — cleared the Senate easily, passing by a 96-4 tally, and is expected to earn quick approval in the U.S. House.

“I know firsthand how important these public lands bills are for the states in which these lands are located,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman of the Senate Public Lands Subcommittee, in a floor speech.

The bill won’t steer any federal money to the Deschutes River Conservancy, but it gives clearance to the nonprofit to seek as much as $2 million annually until 2015.

“I’m not confident we will see any money for a while, but this was a very critical step,” said Tod Heiser, the executive director of the Bend-based group, which helps manage water mitigation efforts and line up dollars for conservation projects in the Deschutes basin.

The legislation also will amend the contract between the North Unit Irrigation District in Jefferson County and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to allow for water conservation in connection with a proposed canal-lining project. That conserved water has financial value because it will be left in the river system and help fish, and dollars from interests such as the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board will help pay for the lining project, Heiser said.

The North Unit district also will be able to keep some of the conserved water, which will no longer seep into the ground through the bottom of canals, and sell it to farmers and ranchers currently served by the Crooked River, reducing irrigation water taken from that river.

The bill does not include any federal dollars for the lining project, but funds could be sought in subsequent legislation.

“Enactment of this bill will enable our district to conserve even more water, benefiting our farmers and Deschutes River salmon and steelhead,” said Richard Macy, the chairman of the North Unit district board.

Wyden said he hopes the movement on Thursday’s package will open the door to a second package of projects that is still being stalled by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

That second batch includes the creation of two new Oregon wilderness areas, one on Mount Hood and the other on the Southern Oregon coast.

Coburn has put holds on stacks of spending bills in Congress because he is concerned about the sustainability of the federal budget. Those holds prevent bills from coming up for votes.

Until Thursday, he had refused to lift his hold on the natural resource-related bills, even when lawmakers proposed offsetting spending cuts.

The legislation that advanced Thursday includes four Oregon-specific water projects and a directive to the National Park Service to study the “local natural, historic, cultural, educational, scenic or recreational resources” along the Lower Columbia River.

“Approval of these projects is long overdue,” U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said in a press release. “These projects bring both environmental and economic benefits to every corner of Oregon.”

In addition to the Deschutes basin projects, the legislation devotes $6 million to repair the Wallowa Lake Dam in Eastern Oregon and directs the Bureau of Reclamation to study competing water demands in the Rogue River Basin in Southern Oregon.

James Sinks can be reached at 503-566-2839 or at jsinks@bendbulletin.com.

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