June 13, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Laying out a path for river restoration

August 7, 2011
June 13, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Laying out a path for river restoration

Laying out a path for river restoration

2 area groups throw support behind bill that would aid McKay Creek 2 area groups throw support behind bill that would aid McKay Creek

By Erik Hidle / The Bulletin

Published: June 13. 2011 4:00AM PST Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin

Russ Rhoden, of the Ochoco Irrigation District, and Kate Fitzpatrick, program manager with the Deschutes River Conservancy, stand near McKay Creek near Prineville on Thursday. Both organizations are supporting legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, that would help restore the waterway as steelhead habitat.


A bill introduced early this month by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, includes provisions designed to restore steelhead habitat in the Crooked River system. HR 2060, dubbed the Central Oregon Jobs and Water Security Act, focuses primarily on moving a “wild and scenic” boundary line away from the Bowman Dam, allowing for a hydroelectric power station to be built.

Another major provision allows some water stored behind the dam to be released in order to foster economic development in Prineville.

Another part of the bill, meanwhile, looks to aid in the restoration of McKay Creek, a historically strong steelhead spawning ground.

The McKay Creek area can't be provided water through Ochoco Irrigation District because of boundary lines set by the Bureau of Reclamation.

As an alternative, land owners in the area have credits allowing them to pull water from the creek for farming purposes. But that practice results in low flows in the creek and is a less than reliable resource for farmers looking to keep their fields healthy.

The bill seeks a change in the boundary line so the irrigation district can expand to the McKay Creek area.

It also gives the district the authority to draw additional water from the Prineville Reservoir, which is already authorized for irrigation purposes.

Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, said if the bill becomes law then the path is laid to restore water levels in the creek and create a solid habitat for steelhead.

“Historically, McKay was a key tributary for steelhead spawning and rearing,” Heisler said. “If we put all the water rights which are currently being diverted from the creek (for farming) back in, well, that should go a long way to restore a healthy fish population.”

If the water rights are relinquished, the creek could regain up to 11.2 cubic feet per second of instream flow. About 700 acres worth of pasture and hay land would be affected by the change.

“Land owners in the area like the idea,” Heisler said. “Their current water source is an intermittent creek, and that's not a particularly great source of water for farming. If you give those farmers on the creek a really reliable water supply, then we can see net gains from an agricultural perspective and in the restoration of the creek.”

Though the bill allows the reconfiguration of the irrigation district to happen, it does not provide any money for the project, which is likely to cost millions.

“The benefit of the legislation is that it would give certainty that this can be done,” Heisler said. “If a group decides to put money down on the project then they know they are actually going to be able to get water to those people.”

Free to taxpayers

Walden said the fact that the bill comes at no cost to taxpayers is its strongest selling point.

“The no cost removes many processes that would otherwise hold this up,” he said. “We now have a hearing on the bill scheduled for June 23, and I believe we're fortunate to get that hearing as there has been a backlog on hearings.”

Last week, Kimberley Priestley with WaterWatch of Oregon told The Bulletin the bill doesn't address the need to set aside sufficient water for the Crooked River, which may result in water becoming too warm for fish.

In response, Walden's office said there is no consensus on how much water the fish need in the Crooked River, and the bill could not include a provision calling for a scientific study because it would cost money.

Walden said he is aware of criticism of the bill but doesn't want to hold up a no-cost bill for a study that would require spending by the federal government.

“That's a whole other process, and there are opportunities to do other bills with that, but let's not hold up solving this problem to focus,” Walden said.

More supporters

Other groups in favor of the McKay Creek restoration include the city of Prineville and The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Both City Manager Steve Forrester and Tribe spokesman Bobby Brunoe said they are happy to see a bill that didn't put farmers and fisherman at odds. Brunoe serves as cultural preservation officer for the tribes as well as general manager of their natural resources branch.

The tribes want “to see instream flows throughout the Crooked River system that give us the best opportunity to return healthy steelhead runs that have been lost (in) this historic habitat,” Bruno said. “Being able to improve stream flows to McKay to help the steelhead is a big step in the right direction. Doing it while keeping the landowners whole, like we've done here, is the way we try to do business.”

Erik Hidle can be reached at 541-617-7837 or at ehidle@bendbulletin.com.


Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010


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