Bowman pitch to Senate committee

September 20, 2012
Bowman pitch to Senate committee

Wyden, Merkley push for larger water release from dam

By Andrew Clevenger

WASHINGTON — Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden continued to push for legislation that would rework the allocation of water behind the Prineville Reservoir, during a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“After decades of missed opportunities, we now have the chance to change the management of Bowman Dam and do so in a way that benefits Oregon’s economy and environment," Merkley said during brief testimony.

The House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would authorize the release of 5,100 acre-feet of water into the Crooked River. That would offset groundwater the city of Prineville wants to pump to provide water for an additional 500 homes in the city and large data centers for Facebook and other tech companies.

The House bill would also open the 240-foot-high dam to hydropower development by moving the Wild and Scenic boundary line about a quarter mile down the Crooked River, away from its current location in the center of Bowman Dam.

The Senate version, introduced last month by Merkley and co-sponsored by Wyden, would also authorize the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the flow of water from the dam, to release as much of the roughly 80,000 unallocated acre-feet — about half the water in the reservoir — as deemed necessary to promote healthy fish and fisheries downstream.

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the state of Oregon would consult with the Bureau of Reclamation, providing recommendations on how much water to release and when.

“The Bureau is very comfortable with the bill. We like it a lot," said Grayford Payne, the agency’s deputy commissioner for policy, administration and budget, during Wednesday’s hearing.

The Senate bill has support from Prineville, Crook County, the state of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Ochoco Irrigation District and the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, Portland General Electric, and conservation groups including American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and WaterWatch.

Finding common ground

Wyden, who is a member of the Natural Resources committee, said the bill strikes a balance between multiple stakeholders who have varying ideas of how the water behind the dam should be used.

“We have a long tradition in our state of trying to find common ground on these substantive issues," Wyden said. “I think all of us, particularly in the West, understand that water is a prerequisite for quality of life in our part of the country. This bill strikes a balance between competing demands for scarce resources."

Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe attended the hearing along with city engineer Eric Klann and Russell Rhoden of the Prineville-based Ochoco Irrigation District.

After the hearing, Roppe said she was encouraged that the yearslong effort was showing signs of producing viable legislation.

“It’s been a long, hard process," she said.

Some remain wary

Rhoden said the region was lucky to have unallocated water behind the dam. The water behind most dams is already spoken for, he said, which can make reworking the arrangement much more difficult.

Despite the broad consensus supporting the legislation, some parties remain wary of the deal.

Prineville resident Chuck Lang, conservation director of the Oregon Bass Federation, said he remains concerned that by authorizing the release of significant portions of the water behind the dam, the bill might make the reservoir unusable for boaters and flatwater fishermen.

Part of the problem is not knowing how much water will be released for downstream interests, he said.

“It could be that their needs could be met with no problem," he said. “We don’t know. Nobody will tell us. We’ve been left out of that part of the conversation."

The Bureau of Reclamation estimates 575,000 visitors use the Prineville Reservoir and surrounding area each year, producing $6.7 million in economic benefits for the region.

Accommodating use

Lang said city and county officials have assured him and other recreational users that water levels will remain high enough to keep boat ramps usable through Labor Day. But the lake sees widespread use into the fall, he said.

“We still have tournaments there in October," he said. “The reservoir is still usable, the boat ramps are still needed, in October, not (just until the end of) August."

Roppe believes the Bureau of Reclamation and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will make responsible decisions about how much water to release.

“We’re pretty confident that they’re not going to drain the reservoir and have nothing for next year," she said, adding that she hopes to allay the concerns of recreational users of the reservoir.

“We don’t want flatwater fishing to go away. We don’t want the recreation to go away," she said. “We’re hoping we can bridge that misunderstanding."

Merkley, who met with Crook County residents last month to listen to their concerns about the legislation, said every stakeholder “absolutely agrees" the lake should not be drained or rendered unusable as a result of the additional releases contemplated in his bill.

“This is a jewel of the community, and the recreation on the lake is a very important part of its role," he said.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456,

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