February 15, 2008 - Bend Bulletin Tumalo Canal Project Hung Up In Senate

Feb 15, 2008

February 15, 2008 - Bend Bulletin Tumalo Canal Project Hung Up In Senate

Tumalo Canal Project Hung Up in Senate
By Keith Chu / The Bulletin
Published: February 15, 2008

WASHINGTON — A plan to pipe the Tumalo Feed Canal and improve fish habitat will likely be delayed by a senator from Oklahoma who has stalled the project — and about 80 others — over objections about its cost.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., used a procedural maneuver, known as a hold, to stop a group of natural resource bills more than a year ago, and the Democratic leadership has been unable to get them moving again.

Now the delay has gone on so long, the Deschutes River Conservancy says it will have to push back some of its work unless Coburn releases a bill that simply allows the conservancy to qualify for certain federal funds, but does not actually fund it.

Democratic leaders and some Republicans are working with Coburn to move the bills forward, but no deal is imminent, said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Spokesman Bill Wicker.

“Certainly more negotiations are under way,” Wicker said. “They’ll figure it out. I don’t know when.”

Both of Oregon’s senators, Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith, have asked Coburn to drop his holds. Coburn has said he has no objection to the Deschutes River Conservancy, or the policies of any of the natural resources bills he has stalled. He just dislikes the cost.

The Deschutes River Conservancy and Tumalo Irrigation District are collaborating to pipe six miles of the canal, from Tumalo Creek, near Skyline Ranch Road, northwest to the Tumalo Reservoir.

It is projected to cost $14 million in all, with $4 million requested from the federal government.

The conservancy has secured funding for the first half-mile of the project, said Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy. Construction began this winter. To continue work next winter, though, the DRC first needs federal funding to match grants from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and hydro-power producers.

That’s now unlikely to happen, given realities of the federal funding cycle. In the past, the Bureau of Reclamation has sought funding for the Deschutes River Conservancy as part of the president’s budget request.

President Bush has already released his 2009 budget, however, and the U.S. House has started to work on it. So that funding would have to be added as an earmark for one of Oregon’s senators or U.S. House members.

“Next winter we’re going to be out of luck,” Heisler said.

Piping the feed canal would save about 20 cubic feet per second in Tumalo Creek and the middle Deschutes River, according to the irrigation district. That translates to roughly 150 gallons of water per second.

The water, which is about 15 degrees colder than that in the Deschutes River, would improve spawning conditions for redband rainbow trout, Heisler has said.

Conservation projects beyond the Tumalo Feed Canal could be held up if the conservancy’s federal funding doesn’t come through in the next two years, Heisler said. In recent years, the conservancy has shifted away from relying on federal money, to grants from hydro-power producers to fund its work. Those grants will eventually dry up, he said.

“The short story is that we’re OK now, but we won’t be if we can’t get the federal cost share back in play in the next two years,” Heisler said.

A separate measure that would let North Unit Irrigation District farmers draw water from outside the district boundaries, as part of a plan to improve river conditions for fish, is also being held up, despite the fact it won’t cost the government a dime. That bill is included in a package of 56 resource measures that were combined in October by Senate leaders.

Although no senator objects to the North Unit bill, it won’t get a vote until the other bills are released, Wicker said.

“They’re not going to start breaking up the bill and moving parts of it independently,” Wicker said.

Several Senate maneuvers can defeat a hold, but they are time-consuming and can require 60 votes.

Coburn’s office did not return a call seeking comment. In the past, Coburn has said his holds are necessary to restrain federal spending and balance the federal government’s budget deficit, which is projected to be $400 billion in 2009.

The bills have remained in limbo since December, when an agreement between Coburn and Senate leaders fell through. The deal would have let Coburn offer amendments to offset any new natural resources costs with cuts in other federal spending, in exchange for removing his holds. Instead, Coburn offered several unrelated amendments, including one to make it easier to carry guns in national parks.

Keith Chu can be reached at 202-662-7456 or at kchu@bendbulletin.com.

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