By Jason Chaney
While visiting Prineville earlier this month, U.S. Representative Greg Walden announced that his Bowman Dam bill could reach the House floor by June.
He further expects the legislation to pass the House and move on to the Senate.
From there, its future becomes less certain. In fact, some doubt remains whether Oregon’s U.S. senators, Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkley (D) will support the bill or not.
The legislation in question will provide 5,100 acre feet of currently unallocated Prineville Reservoir water for the City of Prineville. Without the added water, the City will struggle to maintain an adequate water supply as the community grows.
In addition, the bill will move the Crooked River’s Wild and Scenic designation boundary from the top of Bowman Dam to a location approximately a quarter-mile downriver. Changing the boundary would enable the construction of a hydroelectric power plant on the dam.
Local leaders are hoping the bill passes before new members of Congress are elected this fall. Otherwise they run the risk of starting the approval process over. Consequently, they have made a concerted effort to sell the senators on the merits of the legislation, and they feel they are making headway.
“I feel like their staffs — both Wyden’s and Merkley’s — have really become more engaged and more educated as a result of our effort,” said Prineville City Manager Steve Forrester.
Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe seems equally encouraged with the recent discussions, although she pointed out that Merkley’s criteria for bill approval could be tough to attain.
“His staff was saying we really need to have everybody reach an agreement,” she said. “As I pointed out to . . . Merkley’s and Wyden’s staffs, we have been working with 40 to 50 people on this for three to four years, and it was difficult for us to reach a consensus.”
Roppe noted that the three main environmentalists involved — WaterWatch, Trout Unlimited, and American Rivers — have been meeting with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which has helped increase the likelihood that Merkley and Wyden will approve the legislation.
“I don’t know if it will be 100 percent (consensus), but we are getting so close that I think it will sway the difference on how things go,” Roppe said.
As of this week, Merkley has yet to officially commit his support, as indicated by a statement furnished by his spokesperson Julie Edwards.
“Senator Merkley continues to meet with stakeholders in the area to craft an agreement that will bring all sides together. This effort is making progress.”
Multiple attempts by the Central Oregonian to reach Wyden regarding his stance on the legislation have gone unanswered.
While local leaders remain optimistic about the senators’ eventual approval of the legislation, Oregon Representative Mike McLane (R-Dist. 55) has concerns. In particular, he questions whether Merkley will approve the legislation without approval from all interested environmental groups.
“The senator had emphasized his support of a collaborative process where a consensus is reached,” McLane said. “And I pointed out that the collaborative process has been ongoing for many years, and that consensus had been reached by the vast majority of those who had participated. But, there were some on the left that had not reached consensus. At a certain point you have to question whether they have a genuine intent to reach consensus or whether they are just simply delaying the process with no intent to agree on anything.”
Consequently, McLane asked Merkley, in the event that some environmental groups continue to disagree with the legislation, if he will decide to approve the bill anyway.
“He said that he does not support what he called a combative approach.”
While he respects Merkley, McLane is disappointed that the senator has not approached the legislation with a greater sense of urgency, given the limited time remaining.
Although Wyden has not officially pledged his support for the bill, McLane has less concern about his willingness to approve the bill.
“I have talked to both senators, and what I get is that based on my impression, Senator Wyden is more ready to pull the trigger and get something done than Senator Merkley.”