By MITCH LIES
NOAA Fisheries Service has announced that steelhead trout released above Round Butte Dam on Central Oregon's Deschutes River will be designated as an experimental population under the Endangered Species Act.
The designation protects irrigation districts and other water users from liabilities associated with accidentally killing endangered species for 12 years. It is part of a long-range plan to reintroduce steelhead above the dam while protecting the interests of irrigators and municipalities that depend on that water.
"This special designation will allow ample time for local landowners and municipalities to work with NOAA, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and watershed councils to develop solid conservation measures for these fish that support recovery of the overall larger population of MIddle Columbia steelhead," head of NOAA Fisheries Service's Northwest regional office Will Stelle said in a prepared statement.
"In a nutshell, this will be how we buy the time we need to put our habitat conservation plan together," said Mike Kasberger, manager of the Ochoco Irrigation District.
Several parties, including conservationists, farmers, ranchers, municipalities and state and federal agencies have worked for several years to develop plans to reintroduce steelhead above the Round Butte Dam in a way that protects interests of water users.
Two bills were introduced in Congress last year giving irrigators first priority for their contracted water, while providing the city of Prineville water and releasing all uncontracted water for fish.
A Senate version of the bill included minimum reservoir releases for fish.
Bills need to be reintroduced in both chambers this year, since the Senate failed to pass its bill in 2012.
"The hope is we can get both sides together and agree on bill language so when the bills are introduced, they are the same bill and they will slide right through," Kasberger said.
"There is enough good in this bill that it is going to pass," he said. "It is just a matter of making sure both the House and Senate have their requirements met."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration filed the experimental designation in the Federal Register Jan. 15.