Editorial: Pass Merkley bill even with its flaws

November 30, 2013
Editorial: Pass Merkley bill even with its flaws

It should be a relatively simple thing to fix a mistake on a map drawn more than 20 years ago, but to date it hasn’t been. The upstream boundary of the Crooked River’s wild and scenic designation still runs smack dab through the center of Bowman Dam, and 25 years after the original error, correction dangles tantalizingly out of reach.

It does so because, despite strong bipartisan support for legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate version of the bill has the potential to destroy fish habitat and recreation behind the dam. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is the primary sponsor of the Senate bill.

First, the House measure, the work of Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River. It and an identical measure that was introduced during the previous session of Congress have passed the full House with unanimous support from both Republicans and Democrats — a rarity in that body these days. The older bill died in the Senate when the session ended at the beginning of this year.

It did so because Merkley’s Senate version contained a provision that was unacceptable. It required that, after allocating water to irrigators, the city of Prineville and others, all remaining water be used to benefit downstream fish and wildlife.

That provision remains.

Among other things, the requirement ignores the plight of upstream bass, trout and other fish that spawn in the spring at the far end of the reservoir behind the dam. It may take those fish two months to complete spawning, and the fingerlings linger at spawning sites until they’ve grown some.

Because the reservoir slopes down to the dam, what looks like a relatively small drawdown there can leave spawning beds high and dry, says Chuck Lang of the Oregon Bass Federation. While bass are not native to the river, they’ve been there since 1888.

Yet even with flaws, the measure should be passed if Merkley and co-sponsor Ron Wyden, D-Ore., cannot be persuaded to change it. It could then go to conference committee, where the differences between the two bills could be worked out, presumably in a way satisfactory to both houses.

That would be progress, something the community of Prineville desperately needs.

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