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Shortchanging the Crooked River 

The Central Oregon Jobs and Water Security Act throws away opportunities to fish, irrigate and restore a steelhead run to the creek.

A thing can be cheap - or even free - and still be no bargain. That's the case with Rep. Greg Walden's Crooked River bill, and that's why we're giving it THE BOOT.

Walden has dubbed his measure, HB 2060, the "Central Oregon Jobs and Water Security Act." But it's far from clear that it would create any jobs, and it definitely wouldn't do anything meaningful to enhance the water security of the fish living in the Crooked River.

The reservoir behind Bowman Dam in Prineville is a rather unusual case: It holds 80,000 more acre-feet of water than has been allocated for irrigation and other downstream uses. Putting that water into the river would help fish thrive and multiply, which would improve the fishing and encourage more people to come and fish, which would be a boost to the local economy.

Walden's bill throws away that opportunity. It would let Prineville pump an additional 5,100 acre-feet of groundwater a year; to offset that it calls for releasing the same amount from Bowman Dam. But that amounts to a puny seven cubic feet of water per second, according to the Deschutes Chapter of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders - not enough to make a difference for fish. And it wouldn't have to be released year-round, meaning that in the critical warm weather months the fish might not get even that much.

HB 2060 also moves the Crooked River's "wild and scenic" boundary downstream to allow Portland General Electric to put a small hydro plant below the dam, and redraws irrigation district boundary lines to put more water in McKay Creek. That provision would help farmers irrigate about 700 acres of hay and pasture land, and also aid efforts to restore a steelhead run to the creek - which is why some conservation groups, such as the Deschutes River Conservancy, support Walden's bill.

But the bill could and should be much better, which is why conservation groups such as the steelheaders and WaterWatch of Oregon oppose it. They'd like to see a study done to determine how much more water the fish in the river should have.

Walden offers a strange rationale for opposing that idea: He didn't include a provision for such a study, he says, because it would have cost money. This sudden penny-pinching attitude is amusing coming from a congressman who has consistently voted for the Iraq war (estimated cost to date: $784 billion) and the George W. Bush tax cuts for billionaires (estimated cost: $1.35 trillion).

Meanwhile, Walden says Congress should speed his bill through because it wouldn't cost any money. What's the hurry? As we said at the beginning, "free" doesn't always equal "bargain" - and the fact that a bad bill doesn't cost anything is a pretty lame reason for passing it.

Walden's bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Water and Power, which has scheduled a hearing on it Wednesday. Congress - or, if necessary, President Obama - ought to BOOT it back to Walden and tell him to come up with a better one.

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