Wyden, Merkley seek reauthorization for Deschutes River Conservancy

June 20, 2023
Wyden, Merkley seek reauthorization for Deschutes River Conservancy

By Michael Kohn

Original article

Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, jointly introduced the Deschutes River Conservancy Reauthorization Act to the U.S. Senate on Thursday and referred it to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

If passed, the legislation will make the Deschutes River Conservancy, a Bend-based nonprofit, eligible to receive federal funding for water quality and conservation projects, according to a statement from Merkley’s office.

The organization has been authorized for federal funding twice before, but authorization is good for just 10 years. Upon expiration of the authorization, the conservancy must reapply.

Federal support for the conservancy “is critical to the long-term stability of our rivers and tributaries,” said Molly Prescott, a spokesperson for Merkley’s office.

The conservancy focuses on projects that reduce wasteful water practices to increase the water flows in the Deschutes River and its tributaries. This includes helping irrigation districts to convert their open canals to pipelines and supporting farmers in their efforts to improve water efficiency. Over the past two years the conservancy has kick-started a water bank to facilitate water transfers from Central Oregon Irrigation District to North Unit Irrigation District.

The conservancy was reauthorized in 2005 and was eligible to receive $2 million per year over 10 years, but no allocations were made during that time period, according to the release.

Kate Fitzpatrick, executive director of the conservancy, said the organization did not pursue reauthorization when its last authorization lapsed. The political climate to receive appropriations was “not favorable,” she said.

“We are looking to get reauthorized now because we believe the political climate is more favorable for securing appropriations again given the federal appetite for investment in solving complex water issues and investing in water projects,” said Fitzpatrick.

The bill would restart eligibility for another 10-year period and allow the conservancy to receive funding from the Bureau of Reclamation, with funds matched at 50% by other sources. Those could include grants from organizations such as the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board or the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Direct appropriations of $2 million a year for projects will allow the conservancy to spend more time completing projects and less time working through cumbersome annual grant processes, Fitzpatrick said.

“At a time when we are accelerating stream-flow restoration and water quality work in the (Deschutes) basin with irrigation and other partners to meet critical needs for fish and wildlife, reliable access to $2 million a year would create additional stability for the work and ensure that we get the needed projects on the ground,” Fitzpatrick said.

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