Groups want Walden’s water plan to help fish, river health
By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin
Published: June 11. 2011 4:00AM PST
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, visits Prineville today to discuss proposed legislation that would allow Prineville to draw more groundwater, help restore McKay Creek and more. But some conservation groups and angling advocates are upset about what it does not include — more water for fish and river health.
“To the extent that this bill is being sold as something that’s good for the river, it falls very short,” said Kimberley Priestley, with WaterWatch of Oregon.
Different agencies, nonprofits and irrigation districts have been working for years to determine what to do with the 80,000 acre-feet of water stored in Prineville Reservoir behind Bowman Dam, Priestley said. But this proposed legislation, she said, doesn’t address the need to set aside a sufficient amount of water for the Crooked River. And without enough water, the river can become unhealthily warm for fish.
Having unallocated water stored behind a dam that could be used to improve river conditions for fish is a rare thing in the West, she said.
“There’s a really unique opportunity, and there has been since the dam was built, to use that water in a way that would help downstream fisheries.”
The proposed bill would allow Prineville to pump about 5,100 acre-feet of water from groundwater, which Walden’s office said is key for bringing new jobs and businesses to the area, and calls for releasing an equivalent amount from Bowman Dam to offset the groundwater loss.
It also would move a Wild and Scenic River boundary from the middle of Bowman Dam to just downstream, allowing Portland General Electric to build a small hydroelectric facility. Finally, it would allow the Ochoco Irrigation District to redraw its boundaries to include some farmers who had been drawing water from McKay Creek, removing a hurdle for a major restoration project.
Those are all good things, said Yancy Lind, Deschutes Chapter president of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders.
But he’s ultimately disappointed with the bill.
“Everyone gets something except for the fish,” Lind said. “There’s plenty of water, and why can’t the angling community get a little water for fish?”
If a goal of the legislation is to provide jobs in Crook County, creating the habitat for a healthy run of salmon, steelhead and other fish is one way to do that as well, he said. “The sports fishing community in the state of Oregon is massive. If you really want this to be a jobs bill, then let’s get water in the river so that fisheries could generate new jobs.”
The bill calls for releasing 7 cubic feet per second of water to offset the groundwater pumping, but that’s not enough for fish, Lind argues, and the legislation doesn’t require it to be released year-round.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently updated a report on fish and Crooked River water flows, Lind said, but a meeting scheduled for last month to release the report was canceled.
The state agency had done a study of river flows in the early ’90s, said Brett Hodgson, Deschutes District biologist with Fish and Wildlife. It was revisited in the early 2000s, and the recent study evaluated how much habitat would be available for different species of fish in different reaches of the Crooked River.
But Hodgson says the agency was directed not to hold the recent meeting so it could gather additional information — but also because it was a contentious issue. “There were high-level discussions taking place. We thought it would be premature to hold the workshop.”
He declined to comment further on the subject or provide more details.
How much for fish?
There’s not a consensus on how much water the fish need in the Crooked River, said Andrew Whelan, a spokesman for Walden. And the bill could not include a provision calling for a scientific study because it would cost money. But Walden does plan to request that federal agencies study how much water should be released for fish.
“This isn’t the end-all, be-all for work that’s going to be done on the Bowman Dam or Crooked River,” Whelan said. “But this represents, I think, what can be done right now, what can be passed in the House and Senate, and what can be signed into law — and quickly.”
John Ogan, an attorney for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said that the tribes are vitally interested in seeing steelhead runs return to the Crooked River system, and the proposed bill is a chance to work on the need to improve habitat on McKay Creek.
“We’re pleased to take a significant step with the McKay Creek project, something that we’ve all been working on for five to six years,” Ogan said. “It’s a critical piece of the Crooked River system.”
But Priestley, with WaterWatch, said she’s concerned because the McKay Creek portion of the bill doesn’t specifically state that water irrigators used to take out of McKay Creek must be returned to the creek when they get irrigation water from other sources.
“We think the McKay Creek project would be a great thing,” she said, but there’s no guarantee that a drop of water would be returned,” she said.
Ogan said he knows of the concern about that part of the McKay project, and that people will work to include it in future drafts of the legislation.
“We saw that as a legitimate concern and will be working on tightening that up and making that clear, because that’s exactly what everyone intends,” he said.
The McKay section of the legislation could lead to a lot more restoration efforts, said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, and is a key step toward restoring the Crooked River watershed.
“From our perspective, the most pragmatic way to go forward at the moment is to get the major tributary, McKay Creek, restored,” Heisler said.
And the legislation could allow other projects, like removing irrigation diversions and other obstacles in the creek, to move forward, even if it doesn’t address adding more water to the main stem of the river.
“Every piece of legislation can’t try to solve all problems,” he said. “It’s not as if this is the last conversation we’re going to have about it.”
While the McKay project would be valuable, Preistley said, it needs that guarantee that the water will be returned to the creek. And the proposed bill is a “missed opportunity,” she said, to include more water releases for fish health and habitat.
“There’s a whole contingency of very concerned conservation groups who I think will be pushing hard to see improvements,” she said.
Kate Ramsayer can be reached at 541-617-7811 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010