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Merkley’s Crooked River Plan 

Merkley gets this week's Glass Slipper.

It’s been said that the hallmark of a good compromise is that no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something. That’s pretty much the summation of the recent agreement about how to apportion the remaining unclaimed water in the Prineville Reservoir.

The agreement, which was brokered by Senator Jeff Merkley, D-OR, and his staff, divides the remaining resource between wildlife, farmers, and the growing city of Prineville that, according to city staff, is running out of available water for future growth.

It also addresses the issue of whether Bowman Dam will be available for hydroelectric power development.

That’s a lot of things to accomplish in one fell swoop, and it took months, if not years, to get there.

While the problem that they faced was not necessarily unique—how to allocate a finite resources among competing interests—the opportunity was.

Thanks to a quirk in engineering history, the Prineville reservoir was constructed at nearly double the necessary capacity. That design anomaly created a relatively large stockpile of water. For 50 plus years that water has remained theoretically untouched.

There are plenty of reasons for that inactivity, including complex bureaucratic rules regarding how such water can be allocated and persistent lack of consensus about how that water might be used.  After years of inactivity, the wheels started to turn in 2011. Ironically it was neither river advocates nor farmers that set them in motion. Rather it was a move by the power company PGE to clear the way for a hydroelectric project by moving the Congressionally designated Wild and Scenic Boundary on the Crooked River that opened the dialogue. Before anyone could say special interests, Rep. Greg Walden, rode to the rescue, blazing into Prineville in his signature Wrangler jeans (only  in the field mind you) for a closed door meeting with Prineville officials and irrigators – no conservation groups were at that table.

Within a matter of weeks Walden had a bill that satisfied everyone. There would be water for the city and its growing data server development, a guarantee that irrigators would enjoy priority before all other users, including fish, and a new Wild and Scenic boundary, clearing the way for a hydro plant at Bowman. There was just one thing missing: any consideration of the impacts to a blue ribbon trout fishery and a nascent salmon and steelhead recovery project into which millions has already been invested. Call it an oversight.

Not surprisingly fish and river advocates dug in and girded for a fight. It could have been an ugly one that resulted in a stalemate that benefited no one.

Instead Senator Merkley, with the support of fellow democrat Ron Wyden, stepped into the fray. What followed was a long public silence and a flurry of behind the scenes negotiations. During those talks, which were held together thanks largely to the persistence of Merkley and his staff, stakeholders with directly competing interests put aside their self-interests, at least temporarily, to hammer out an agreement that offers something to everyone. The details aren’t important here, however fish and wildlife advocates including Trout Unlimited and American Rivers have endorsed the final compromise because of its provision for increased flows for wildlife. Questions remain, including whether the water released for fish will be protected from downstream diversion and how to balance releases for wildlife with the flat-water recreation opportunities at Prineville reservoir. The agreement at this point is silent on just how to do that. That’s OK. The important thing is that it creates a level playing field to have that discussion.

As we said, it could have gone down differently, but it didn’t thanks to Merkley and his staff. For that we’re giving them the Glass Slipper with a felt sole and encouraging them to keep wading into issues like this.


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