Environmental groups, tribes happy with Crooked River compromise
By MITCH LIES
PRINEVILLE, Ore. -- When federally protected steelhead trout were reintroduced in the Crooked River system in 2007, members of the Ochoco Irrigation District believed it was only a matter of time before their irrigation supplies came under fire.
"Expectations were the (federal) agencies were going to want more water for instream flows," said Russell Rhoden, the district's assistant manager. "We felt that if we didn't proactively steer our destiny, it would be steered for us."
District managers contacted U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and over the next four years crafted HR2060. Among other provisions, the bill would give irrigators first priority for their contracted water and provides the city of Prineville a reliable source of water.
The legislation sailed through the House by voice vote June 5 of this year.
The environmental community, however, wasn't pleased.
"The bill didn't provide enough water for the needs of fish," said Tom Wolf, executive director of the Oregon Council of Trout Unlimited.
Oregon Trout and other environmental groups approached Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., about crafting a separate Senate bill.
Merkley subsequently forged consensus by bringing together irrigators, environmentalists, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and others. By late July, the diverse interests had reached a compromise.
"Our most important thing was first fill (or first priority)," said Mike Kasberger, manager of the Ochoco Irrigation District, "and (the environmental community's) most important thing was releasing all the uncontracted water for fish. And from there, we were able to come to agreement."
Two days after a July 31 announcement that the parties had reached agreement, Merkley introduced S3483, or the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security Act.
"This bill provides many benefits," Merkley said. "The city of Prineville will have access to additional water that is critical to support new industries. Local farmers and ranchers will get more secure and expanded access to irrigation water. And additional water would be available to support fish and wildlife."
Merkley's Senate bill has several similarities to Walden's House bill. Both dedicate the Prineville Reservoir's first 69,000 acre-feet of water to the Bureau of Reclamation's 16 contract holders, including the 862 patrons of the Ochoco Irrigation District. The Ochoco patrons, mostly commercial farms, contract for about 58,000 acre-feet of water each year, enough to irrigate 20,000 acres.
Both bills modify the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in a way that frees up the reservoir's Bowman Dam for generating hydroelectric power, a provision sought by Portland General Electric.
Both bills assure the city of Prineville has access to 5,100 acre-feet of water, which will enable the city to meet its water needs for the next 30 years.
Both bills provide 2,742 acre-feet of reservoir water to growers with McKay Creek water rights under the stipulation they will leave water instream for fish. The stipulation, Rhoden said, is beneficial to McKay Creek irrigators because the Prineville Reservoir is a more reliable source of water than the creek, which dries up some years.
And both bills provide up to 10,000 acre-feet of water for the North Unit Irrigation District, which is the largest in acreage of seven Central Oregon irrigation districts.
The difference is the Senate bill includes a provision for minimum reservoir releases for downstream fish. That provision, Wolf said, was the key to bringing environmentalists on board.
"There has to be an adequate minimum release, because fish in watersheds need a certain amount of cfs," or cubic feet per second, a measure of water flow. "If they don't have that, they don't survive," Wolf said.
The bill "is not perfect," Wolf said, "but it at least addresses a lot of our concerns about adequate water flow and providing needs for fish."
One concern hanging over the bill is that it doesn't assure recreation needs will be met, said Chris Havel, communications officer for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
"Changes to Prineville Reservoir water management may not affect recreation before Labor Day, except in rare circumstances -- perhaps two out of every 10 years," Havel said. "Boaters on the reservoir may have a harder time in those extreme drought years, but that is true now at other reservoirs in Central Oregon, and we will do our best to manage through it."
Here, again, Kasberger and Rhoden believe that in most years the reservoir can meet recreation needs on top of the other needs.
"According to our modeling, there is enough water for existing contractors and instream needs and recreation," Kasberger said.
Further assurances for meeting recreation needs could be written into the bill in the reconciliation process after the House and Senate pass their bills, Kasberger said.
Kasberger said it is doubtful the Senate will pass S3483 before the end of the year, which means the House will have to re-pass Walden's bill, or an amended version of it.
But given the ease that HR2060 cleared the House this June, and the diverse coalition backing the Senate bill, Kasberger is confident the bills will clear their respective chambers next year, and set in motion what Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., characterized as "a path forward that leads to both economic growth for the community and the protection of fish and wildlife."
"This is unprecedented," Kasberger said. "It is a huge win for the (Ochoco) district, the city of Prineville and fish."