The senator held a meeting on Friday at Prineville City Hall to address concerns
U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) came to Prineville last Friday to discuss his bill regarding rules and regulations for Bowman Dam and Prineville Reservoir.
The legislation has recently drawn fire from local residents over concerns that its language allows the lake to be drained.
The bill, in several ways, mirrors legislation sponsored by U.S. Representative Greg Walden (R-Ore.) that calls for a change in the Crooked River Wild and Scenic boundary as well as an additional 5,100 acre-feet of reservoir water for the City of Prineville. However, Merkley added some additional components intended to satisfy concerns held by environmental and fishing groups.
“What I did is facilitate a conversation through a broader set of stakeholders, including a whole bunch of angler groups,” he said. “They were concerned about the health of the fish in the lake and in the river.”
In order to satisfy water concerns for the City and irrigators as well as fishing and environmental interests, the legislation allows the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to store and release water in the reservoir to meet the differing needs. That provision has caused multiple residents concern that the BOR can drain the lake.
Those concerns drew a large crowd when Merkley and stakeholders associated with the legislation met with the public on Friday at Prineville City Hall.
Merkley welcomed the input, saying it was absolutely appropriate that people share their feedback with the various stakeholders. Nevertheless, he disagrees that the legislation leaves open the possibility to drain Prineville Reservoir.
“It’s wasn’t just release, it was store and release,” Merkley said of the BOR provision. “Draining the lake does not help the fish in the stream. (If) you drain the lake, first of all, you haven’t stored the water that you pledged to store for the irrigators (80,000 acre-feet out of about 160,000 acre-feet).” He stressed that first-fill for irrigators must receive top priority.
Merkley went on to point out that the legislation satisfied the concerns of the various stakeholders because it includes a dry-year management plan.
“They saw that as a way to improve upon the current (water allocation) arrangement,” he added.
While Merkley defends the bill as it currently exists, he said the input taken from the public on Friday will likely prompt further research that may alter the bill if necessary.
“I think that every point that is raised is going to get additional attention,” he said.
Going forward, the bill will soon go to the Senate’s Natural Resources Committee, Merkley said. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who co-sponsored the bill, is the committee’s ranking Democratic member, which could increase its likelihood of success.
While that is the case, Merkley does not expect the bill to reach a Senate vote before the November election, pointing out that bills tend to move slowly during the Presidential race.
Local leaders had hoped to pass the bill before the election out of concern that new Congress members will not support the legislation. Merkley does not share those concerns.
“I think it’s very likely that this is the type of bill that really shouldn’t have any sort of partisan objection,” he said last month. “I just think we are in a very good position to push this forward.”