How Bowman bill came together

August 9, 2012
How Bowman bill came together

Merkley, Wyden built on Walden’s foundation

By Andrew Clevenger

WASHINGTON — When Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, introduced legislation last year that would authorize the release of more water from behind Bowman Dam, the bill was cheered by Prineville officials, who desperately wanted the water for economic development.

But it received a less enthusiastic reception from conservation groups, who were disappointed that Walden’s bill didn’t include more considerations for the health of fish and other wildlife downstream in the Crooked River and adjacent waterways.

Last week, Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both D-Ore., announced a new agreement, which broadened the coalition of stakeholders who approve the deal.

The bill, which Merkley introduced in the Senate, incorporates the fundamental terms of Walden’s legislation, authorizing the release of 5,100 acre-feet of water from the reservoir to offset the water needed by the city.

But it goes even further, authorizing 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 — roughly half of the water in the reservoir — 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.

“We have taken a huge step in what was needed up here in the upper (Deschutes) basin, particularly in the Crooked River, to make these streams ready for salmon and steelhead," said John Ogan, legal counsel for the Confederate Tribes. “The Senate bill picked up the pillars of the Walden bill, and (added) the issue of can we come to agreement of how to use the unallocated water."

For decades, multiple and diverse interests have fought over water rights, producing considerable skepticism and mistrust.

These obstacles took months to overcome, said Merkley.

“We had all the elements necessary to bring the sides together, but we needed to keep building the communication and the trust between the parties," he said. “I think it helped a lot to have this intensive, five-month discussion where people went through the process of hearing each other out."

Like the House version, the Senate bill reaffirms the previous water commitments to irrigators and water districts, who were nervous they would lose standing if concessions were made to provide more water for fisheries.

Kate Miller, an attorney with Trout Unlimited, said the agreement respects the users who have been relying on the water while at the same time recognizing the need to make more water available instream for fish.

“That inclusion in the package made the bill a lot more balanced," she said.

Other conservation groups who support the bill include American Rivers and WaterWatch.

For the Consolidated Tribes, improving the health of the fisheries and restoring salmon and steelhead to their historic habitats has been paramount, said Ogan. Now that the multimillion-dollar Pelton Round Butte fish passage is operational, fish that spawned and grew in the upper basin have returned as adults, making the prospect of sustainable and even harvestable fish populations a distinct possibility.

“The return of salmon and steelhead shifted the conversation about what to do with the water in the Prineville Reservoir," he said.

Another key element of the Senate version is a plan for how to handle particularly dry years, he said. By using biologically sound, science-based calculations on how to best dole out water at various times during the year, all stakeholders will benefit from a more stable situation, he said.

“You can imagine the needle we had to thread to find a balance to bring that coalition together," Ogan said. “Walden’s bill kept the conversation going."

The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which must approve it before it goes to the full Senate for a vote.

It will be a challenge to get the legislation passed before the term ends, Ogan said, but Oregon’s congressional delegation now has support across the spectrum of stakeholders.

“It’s a success story that may be unparalleled, especially in (Oregon), considering the subject matter and the players who were involved," Ogan said. “We’re unified.... Left to their own, everybody would have written it up differently. But the balance is there."

— Reporter: 202-662-7456,

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