Merkley pushes Crooked River bill

August 1, 2012
Merkley pushes Crooked River bill

Legislation OK'd by House would allow construction of hydroelectric plant

By Joel Aschbrenner / The Bulletin

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., plans to introduce a bill this week that would allow the construction of a $13 million hydroelectric plant on the Crooked River and provide more water for Prineville.

The bill, called the Central Oregon Jobs and Water Security Act, also addresses water issues for fish and irrigators. It passed the House by a voice vote in June carried by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River.

Merkley said he believes there will be support in the Senate for the bill, which will likely move through the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“I don't know that we will be able to pass it as a stand-alone bill," Merkley said. “The key will be attaching it to a major piece of legislation moving through."

The bill would move the Wild and Scenic River designation on the Crooked River a quarter-mile downstream to a point below the Bowman Dam and the Prineville Reservoir, allowing Portland General Electric to build a six-megawatt plant.

When an eight-mile stretch of the river was designated Wild and Scenic in 1988, the upper boundary was set at the center of the Bowman Dam. Officials with the Bureau of Land Management have called designation of the portion of the river beneath the dam counterintuitive and a mistake.

Walden's office has said the hydroelectric project could create about 50 construction jobs in Crook County, where seeasonally adjusted unemployment rates remain the highest in the state at 13.6 percent.

The bill would also allow Prineville to pump more groundwater for homes and businesses by increasing the minimum downstream flows from the dam. Because pumping groundwater pulls water out of the Crooked River's aquifer, the city isn't allowed to pump more groundwater without replacing it in the river. The increased downstream flows will provide that trade-off.

“We need more assurance for the water supply, and we weren't excited about buying water rights from farmers and ranchers and drying up those water rights," said Mayor Betty Roppe.

The additional water is expected to meet the city's needs for 20 years, including the demands of data centers being developed there, Roppe said.

And by stipulating higher downstream flows, the bill has satisfied environmental and tribal groups, Merkley said.

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers and Water Watch are among the groups that have endorsed the bill, according to a news release from the senator's office.

The Ochoco Irrigation District has also signed on, as the bill guarantees that irrigators have first rights to water in the reservoir.

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An aerial view of a body of water.