Senator says river-division bill would not dry up Oregon reservoir

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PRINEVILLE, Ore. — U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said legislation he is sponsoring to divide the water from the Crooked River among stakeholders is not likely to significantly decrease the water level in Prineville Reservoir.

The bill would allocate more water for the city of Prineville, allow for a hydroelectric project below the reservoir and guarantee water supplies for irrigators.

Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, spoke to more than 50 Crook County residents Friday. Many residents are worried that the senator's bill would drain the popular boating and fishing lake.

The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The House passed a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., in June.

The bill has the support of environmental groups, irrigators, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and city and county officials. Locals, however, worry about a provision that all water not allocated to irrigators or the city be managed for the benefit of fish downriver, namely salmon and steelhead.

Chuck Lang, a Prineville resident, is concerned water will be flushed downriver for fish and lake levels will drop. Lang, conservation director of the Oregon Bass Federation Nation, said that could kill bass spawns along the shoreline, and result in larger algae blooms.

"It's going to turn into a stinky, useless lake, at least for recreation," he said.

Merkley's bill calls for the Bureau of Reclamation, the tribes and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to decide how much water -- and when -- is sent downriver to benefit fish.

It's in the best interests of water managers to keep the lake full, Merkley said; if it is drawn down, there could be insufficient water for the fish the following year.

The Ochoco Irrigation District, a bill supporter, studied 70 years of data. It's likely that lake levels won't drop significantly during the summer recreation season, said district manager Mike Kasberger.