Too Much of a Good Thing: Fish advocates and farmers say there is enough water to go around for all users on the Crooked River. So why can't they figure out how to share it? | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Too Much of a Good Thing: Fish advocates and farmers say there is enough water to go around for all users on the Crooked River. So why can't they figure out how to share it?

Fish advocates and farmers say there is enough water to go around for all users on the Crooked River. So why can't they figure out how to share it?

Russ Rhoden has two pictures that he likes to show visitors to his Prineville office. The first is an aerial photo taken sometime in the first half of the 20th century and shows much of Prineville submerged under spring flood waters, the rooftops poking up like little tar paper islands. The other shot is a more recent photo of the upper Crooked River, or more precisely the bed of the upper Crooked River since there isn't a drop of water in the frame. It's a somewhat rare but well-documented occurrence that happens when there isn't enough snow and rain to recharge the river through the hot summer months. The former manager of the Prineville-based Ochoco Irrigation District, Rhoden has spent the last two decades thinking about snow pack, dam releases and river diversions. And if anybody is qualified to talk about the Crooked River's fickle temperament, it's Rhoden.

"It's a very flashy system," says Rhoden, referring to the river's propensity for fluctuating wildly between gushing spring floods and a thirsty trickle during the dry summer months.

For the last half century, Prineville has been largely insulated from the two extremes thanks to the federal government, which stores and releases water at Bowman Dam according to irrigators' demands and as Mother Nature requires. The dam and massive reservoir behind it ensure that there is enough water for Crook County farmers during lean years and adequate storage to prevent floodwaters from inundating Main Street during heavy runoff. The system has worked well for farmers and arguably fish, which have benefited from the relatively consistent flows out of the reservoir. However, a recent effort to reintroduce salmon and steelhead into the upper Deschutes Basin, including the Crooked River, has set the stage for a struggle over how best to manage the river and reservoir for a multitude of uses.

Fish advocates and farmers aren't the only ones looking to shore up long-term water supplies. The city of Prineville recently entered the discussion as well, announcing that it needs a cut of the stored water behind Bowman to meet some of its long-term growth needs, which include water for residential and industrial needs, such as Facebook's new data center. All of the additional water users are looking to one place for answers - Prineville Reservoir. Thanks to a quirk of history, more than half of the water in the reservoir is essentially unspoken for at fully capacity, meaning that it could be allocated to municipal needs, fish and farmers. But the question of just how to slice that pie has driven a wedge between user groups, particularly river advocates who want more water for fish, including federally protected salmon, and irrigators who helped build the dam and also rely on the water for their livelihoods.

Prineville officials like Rhoden who have been involved in the ongoing discussions say they want to see the reintroduction effort succeed. However, they say that it can't be on the backs of existing water users and the community at large, which need a secure water supply to sustain Crook County's economy that has already been hit hard by the recession and housing industry collapse.

"Hopefully, there is a win-win situation... None of us are anti-fish, but we don't want that to happen at the expense of existing contract holders or flat water recreation," said Mike Lunn, a Prineville resident who has been working as a consultant with the Ochoco Irrigation District on issues related to water allocation and the salmon and steelhead reintroduction.

To prepare the way for reintroduced salmon, millions of dollars have been invested in restoration efforts in the upper basin, but most of that money has flowed into the Sisters area where the population has largely embraced the reintroduction. It's another story in Prineville, where everyone from irrigators to elected officials is viewing the experiment with at least some degree of skepticism. And while many of the stakeholders believe that there will be enough water to go around for fish and farmers, there's been little agreement about just how to do that. With the clock ticking, fish and river advocates wonder whether there will be enough water to accommodate returning salmon and steelhead next year, or ever. It's a significant question given the huge investment that's been made in the reintroduction effort, including the construction of a $108-million underwater fish passage facility at Pelton Dam downstream from Prineville at Lake Billy Chinook.

Weird Science

From the construction of the underwater tower facility to the rehabilitation of miles of stream habitat, biologists and engineers rather than politicians have guided the entire reintroduction effort. But in Crook County, science has taken a back seat to politics. There is perhaps no clearer illustration of the situation than the recent effort by the Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) and Nature Conservancy to come up with flow recommendations that could serve as targets for managers of the Prineville Reservoir. It's a need that's long been identified by fish advocates, as well as farmers, and key to any discussion of how to allocate some, or all, of the so-called uncontracted storage at Bowman dam. The water serves as a sort of safety net for irrigators, who are essentially allowed to borrow from it during lean years, but also presents an opportunity for fish and wildlife advocates who see it as an untapped resource.

Seeing the potential for a seemingly win-win scenario, the DRC, which has been working on restoration projects for the better part of a decade in the Crooked River basin, tapped the Nature Conservancy for assistance because of the group's previous experience with flow restoration projects. DRC Executive Director Tod Heisler said the idea was to get a baseline environmental snapshot of the river using a process that has been developed by the Nature Conservancy and used around the world.

The multi-step process was supposed to culminate in a community-wide discussion that balanced improving the overall river ecology with the community's other needs, including maintaining adequate water for agriculture, municipal uses and recreation, such as boating and fish in the Prineville Reservoir, which is estimated to generate millions of dollars in tourism spending in Prineville each year. The initiative never got that far. Crook County politicians and farm advocates essentially scuttled the process late last year over concerns that the effort overlooked the needs of farmers and other users in the basin.

"I suppose the CREF study was a good baseline, but in terms of a management strategy for today, it doesn't give us a lot of info," said Mike Lunn, a retired national forest supervisor who lives in Prineville and has been consulting with the Bowman Dam project's biggest customer, the Prineville-based Ochoco Irrigation District, which provides water to more than 700 customers covering 20,000 acres in Crook County.

Lunn, who now works as a conflict resolution specialist traveling around the West to hot-button areas like Klamath County and western Montana, said the political rhetoric in Crook County is much more cordial than in other places where he deals with resource issues. He did acknowledge, however, that tensions have been on the rise recently because of the high stakes involved with the reintroduction effort - something that wasn't on the radar screen three years ago when DRC embarked on the Crooked River Environmental Flows (CREF) project.

"In all of the stuff I've seen and in talking with Ochoco Irrigation District, it really seems to me that the capacity of the resource and people to make things happen is really adequate to provide the solution space that we need," said Lunn.

Crook County officials, including the irrigation district, weren't as diplomatic in their assessment. They saved their most pointed barbs for their official comments to DRC in which they blasted the entire process and the organization's motives.

"As currently conceived, we would view the recommendations generated at your workshop as being one-sided and premature and counter productive to collaborative balancing," Crook county officials wrote in a letter signed by the city of Prineville, the Crook County Court, as well as Ochoco Irrigation District.

The letter asks specifically that DRC and the Nature Conservancy "table this effort indefinitely." Indeed, rather than plow forward without local support for scientifically based flow recommendations, DRC canceled a planned meeting in November to discuss the project with other stakeholders. That meeting would have been the first step to broaden the scope of the work beyond a review of the existing scientific literature to include the other needs and demands in the basin. Instead, the DCR intends to finalize the draft that it first released last fall along with the written comments that it has received and step away from the project.

Heisler, whose group organization raised money to fund the work and then dedicated staff time and resources to coordinate it, said the DRC didn't have any choice once some of the other stakeholders, including municipalities and farmers, registered their objections.

"This is not the finest day for DRC," Heisler said. "But we can't really work in that kind of space."

Heisler emphasized that the DRC is still committed to finding mutually beneficial solutions to the issues that affect all users in the Crooked basin. But he said the CREF is essentially dead, save a little housekeeping.

"We will cease and desist on this issue because at this point there is not a lot of fertile ground left for us and our forum is not the one that people what to move with," Heisler said.

The situation underscores the mounting tensions in the basin since the salmon and steelhead reintroduction has taken hold. Crook county officials and irrigators have been bracing for the fallout and have already worked out an interim plan with the federal government to shield the existing river users, particularly farmers, from prosecution under the Endangered Species Act. The so-called Habitat Conservation Plan being developed by irrigators gives farmers and irrigation districts some level of immunity from fines and other enforcement measures intended to protect endangered fish like Mid- Columbia steelhead and Chinook, provided that irrigators develop an approved plan to safeguard fish. Lunn and others say they would like to see more emphasis placed on those efforts, which include habitat restoration, rather than picking a number out of a political vacuum and then applying it to the dam operations, regardless of the impact on other users.

It's a concern that Ochoco Irrigation and Crook County made clear in their December letter to Heisler.

"Stated bluntly, we are all too familiar with the view that the greater the in-stream flow, the greater the environmental benefit and absent any context, we anticipate that your environmental flow recommendations when considered in a vacuum will be that "more is better," they wrote.

Nature Conservancy's Leslie Bach headed up the work on the Crooked for her organization and said that she understands and sympathizes with some of the concerns voiced by locals. However, she said that process was intended to incorporate the needs of other users in the basin, yet it never got that far because of their objections. Bach, who has used a similar process to develop flow and management recommendations on the Middle Fork, Willamette and McKenzie rivers, said it's the first time in her experience that local stakeholders have scuttled an environmental flows project before its conclusion.

"This is my first experience where it's created this much concern," Bach said. "And maybe it wasn't clear what the steps were and the fact that you do get to a point where you look at all the of the different uses and figure out how to balance them. That's part of the process, but we didn't get there."

That's somewhat frustrating for river advocates who say they have been told repeatedly that they need to come up with a minimum flow number, as a starting point for any discussion about allocating the surplus water at Prineville. Bach, whose job was focused more on the science than the public relations campaign, said it was her understanding that all stakeholders were genuinely interested in getting some flow recommendations. But that's not how it played out.

"There were some comments that we needed a number. I took that at face value. I thought that's what they wanted, so we embarked on that... and then there was a concern. I don't know how to reconcile that," Bach said.

An Act of Congress

Thanks in part to Prineville's water supply issues and an unrelated push to add a hydropower facility at the base of Bowman Dam, the questions surrounding farms and fish in the Crooked River have gained new urgency as of late. Last month Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) announced that he planned to introduce legislation paving the way for power development at Bowman by moving the federal Wild and Scenic River boundary half a mile downstream from the dam. The legislation would also allocate a small amount of the overall water in Prineville reservoir for the city of Prineville.

Walden traveled out to Crook County in January to make his announcement during a break from business on Capitol Hill for Martin Luther King Day. Standing atop the Bowman dam in polished leather cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans, Walden proclaimed there was "nothing scenic about a dam," framing his legislation as a common sense and cost-free bill. What he didn't tell television cameras was that he had met privately with irrigators and other public officials in Prineville just before the media event at the dam in a closed-door session to discuss their other priorities for the legislation. At the top of that list is a provision that would give irrigators the first crack at the so-called uncontracted water, even in dry years, a scenario referred to as "first fill," meaning that the allotment for farmers gets set aside before any of the other uses, namely fish and wildlife. If signed into law, the first fill provision would codify the existing practice, regardless of changing climate conditions and wildlife needs. That's a concern to environmental groups that stress that any legislation targeting the uncontracted storage needs to balance multiple interests.

"I think that there is a pretty awesome opportunity here to use the uncontracted storage to meet the multiple needs and it seems like anything that goes forward should address multiple needs. I think that having a first-fill provision creates further lack of flexibility in the way that the reservoir is managed and it seems to go beyond what is necessary to protect the existing contract holders," said Kate Miller, an attorney with Trout Unlimited in Portland who has been involved with some of the negotiations surrounding the Crooked River for her organization.

At a minimum, Miller said the Bowman Dam license needs to be rewritten to allow for fish and wildlife benefits to be included as one of the allowable uses for stored water. That is currently not the case, and one of the reasons that irrigators aren't jumping to change the status quo, which all but guarantees that farmers will get their water every year.

"The goals should be to improve conditions downstream," Miller said. "We're not looking to make things perfect for everyone. The point is to make things better than what is currently happening."

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