By Andrew Clevenger
The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation that would authorize the release of more water stored behind Bowman Dam, providing a boost to Prineville's economic development efforts.
Introduced last year by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, the Central Oregon Jobs and Water Security Act authorizes the release of 5,100 acre-feet of water into the Crooked River. The increased river flows would allow Prineville to seek permission from the state to pump more groundwater for its own use.
Speaking on the House floor, Walden described the measure as a "good, commonsense, job-creating bill."
The legislation, he said, "will create jobs in Central Oregon, remove government red tape, protect family farmers and improve both the water flows and quality for fish and wildlife -- all without costing the federal taxpayer one penny."
Prineville needs the water to make it an attractive, viable location for technology companies, which can be an economic driver for a region particularly hard-hit by the recession, he said. The city is already home to a 300,000-square-foot data center for Facebook, and Apple recently broke ground on the 160-acre site it bought for a data center of its own.
"Prineville is on the verge of becoming another Quincy, Wash., which is home to Yahoo, Microsoft, Dell and others," Walden said.
The bill passed by voice vote, an indication that House Democrats had no significant objections. It now heads to the Senate, where there are no early signs of forceful resistance.
The bill would move the wild and scenic boundary line about a quarter-mile down the Crooked River, away from its current location in the center of Bowman Dam. The tweak would open the 240-foot-high dam to hydropower development, which could bring as many as 50 new construction jobs to the area, Walden said.
"There's nothing wild and scenic about the top of a dam unless you're falling over the top of it," he said.
Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe, who has traveled to Washington three times in support of the legislation, said she is excited by Tuesday's vote, but says more needs to happen before the city sees tangible benefits from the legislation.
City officials have already been working with Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden to rally support in the Senate, she said. Oregon's senators, both Democrats, have indicated that they want agreement from all of the various stakeholders, which include Prineville, Crook County, the Ochoco Irrigation District, Portland General Electric, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, state regulators and environmental and conservation groups.
"We still have some questions from the conservation groups," which have agreed with almost all of the proposals, Roppe said. Overall, they are very close to reaching consensus, she said.
Kimberley Priestley, senior policy analyst with WaterWatch of Oregon, said that the conservation organization opposes the version of the bill that passed the House in part because it puts irrigation first in line for access to the river's water.
"WIthout any significant gains to the river, that's something we oppose," she said.
WaterWatch doesn't object to Prineville getting more water, but because pumping nearby groundwater has the same practical effect on water levels as removing water directly from the river, there's really no overall gain through the additional release, she said.
"It's neither bad nor good. It's a wash," she said. "(The bill) really does nothing for fish. We are hoping that we can reach a balanced solution on the Senate side that would secure unallocated water (behind the dam) for fish."
Roppe said increasing the city's water supply will make it more attractive to other tech companies, which use water (as well as the area's 40-degree nightly drop in temperature) to help cool their servers.
"We do have some other companies that are talking to us," she said.
Other components of the bill aim to jumpstart restoration efforts for McKay Creek by authorizing the Ochoco Irrigation District to provide water to small farms on the upper part of the creek.
The bill would also allow Prineville to provide water to an additional 500 homes within the city, Walden said. Because of current water restrictions, some homes within city limits do not get their water from the city.