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Some Fishy Dealings in Salem 

In the retail business they call it "bait and switch": You offer your customers something that looks like a great deal to entice them into the store, then switch them to another item that isn't such a bargain. Although this tawdry practice is highly unethical and quite illegal, it's still pretty common.

The legislative version of bait-and-switch is pretty common practice too. Take Oregon House Bill 2873, for one horrible contemporary example.

HB 2873 is the "switch" part of this two-part bait-and-switch operation. It would exempt irrigation districts and others who want to put hydroelectric power projects in canals or other manmade bodies of water from any requirement to install fish screens or devices to allow fish to get past the dams.

The bill enjoys the enthusiastic support of the Oregon Water Resources Congress (an association of irrigation districts) and the Oregon Farm Bureau. It passed the House Monday by a vote of 40-19, with all the House Republicans, including Central Oregon's Gene Whisnant and Jason Conger, voting yes.

The "bait" part of the deal was dangled four years ago. Back then, the Oregon Legislature was considering HB 2785. That measure aimed to encourage the development of hydro projects in irrigation systems - "in-conduit hydro," as they're called - by streamlining the process for getting such projects approved.

The Oregon Water Resources Congress and the Farm Bureau were all in favor of that, naturally. But conservation groups like Oregon WaterWatch were worried about the potential loss of safeguards for fish. So they sat down with the Water Resources Congress and the Farm Bureau and worked out a deal: They'd withdraw their opposition to HB 2785 if it included provisions requiring fish screens and fish passage for in-conduit hydro projects.

The irrigators and the farmers agreed, the fish protections were put into the bill, and the bill passed. But now, four years later, the Water Resources Congress and the Farm Bureau are trying to weasel out of the bargain they made.

It's a sleazy maneuver, and if it succeeds it will mean the enactment of a really bad law. HB 2873 would undermine a number of specific existing laws designed to protect Oregon's native fish populations, as well as running counter to the state's long tradition of stewardship of its commercial and recreational fishing resources.

And it's not as if HB 2873 is needed to let hydro projects go forward; all it would do is make it a little easier and cheaper to develop some of them. As Kimberley Priestley of WaterWatch told the House: "Energy development is neither 'green' nor 'renewable' if it involves shortcuts that compromise existing protections for imperiled fish in Oregon."

Although HB 2873 has made its way through the House, there's good reason to hope the Democratic-controlled Senate will block it. And if it gets past the Senate, fortunately there's a conservation-minded guy (and an avid flyfisherman) in the governor's office.

In the meantime, here's THE BOOT for one of the fishiest pieces of legislation that ever slimed its way through the halls of the State Capitol.

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