Thursday, November 15, 2012

Crooked River Water Bill Could Sabotage Steelhead Recovery

A contentious bill on the future of water management in the Upper Deschutes is working its way through the US Congress. The bill, drafted by Senator Jeff Merkley would guarantee first fill priority in Crooked River (Prineville Reservoir) be allocated to irrigation regardless of water levels (ie. how much water is available for fish), squandering the opportunity afforded by a nearly $130 million dollar outlay by Portland General Electric to provide fish passage into the Upper Deschutes by creating conditions in the Crooked River that are inhospitable to steelhead and other anadromous fish. Flow regimes on the Crooked have been altered tremendously since the construction of Prineville Reservoir and with very little water left in the system to support fish, harming the productive potential of an otherwise potentially excellent spawning area for salmon and steelhead.

The proposed bill would make things even worse, and the ball is in the court of Oregon's other Senator Ron Wyden. Should he choose to support the bill, recovery of ESA listed steelhead and salmon in the Crooked will never even approach it's full potential. On the contrary, if this bill is scrapped, and legislators go back to the drawing board to adopt a plan based on credible scientific input which balances the needs of other users of the Crooked River (as well as ESA listed fish) with those of irrigators, the future is bright for wild fish in the Upper Deschutes.

Please call or email Senator Wyden's office and let him know how you feel about this bill.

Below is a letter drafted by a coalition of retired scientists to Senator Wyden:

The Honorable Ron Wyden
221 Dirksen Senate Office Bldg.
Washington, D.C., 20510

Dear Senator Wyden:

We are writing to inform you that we represent a growing number of non-affiliated retired scientists who do not support the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security Act for the reasons stated below.

Fundamentally, this bill contains too many huge uncertainties with respect to obtaining the critical seasonal flows needed to support fish.  We therefore urge introduction of a modified alternative bill approving the City of Prineville request for 5,100 acre feet of water, the Portland General Electric request for constructing a hydroelectric plant at Bowman Dam and the McKay Creek exchange of 2,740 acre feet of water.  Our primary reasons for opposing the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security Act are stated below.

• Our most serious objection is that the bill mandates first-fill priority for the release of irrigation water regardless of Prineville Reservoir water levels.  Linked with this objection is the equally serious concern that the bill does not include a meaningful Drought Management Plan.  Historical river flows and reservoir water levels show that every 3 out of 4 years the reservoir has contained enough water to meet the needs of irrigation, the City of Prineville, downstream flows to support fish, and reservoir levels associated with fishing and other flat water recreational endeavors.  Unfortunately, what is overlooked in your bill (and the Walden bill) is that the primary future problem that needs to be addressed is how to allocate water for fish survival during those years when the reservoir does not contain enough water to meet all desired requests.  With multiple year droughts becoming more common as global warming continues a strong Drought Management Plan is needed to ensure the successful re-establishment of Chinook salmon and threatened Steelhead in the Crooked River and its tributaries. Clearly, in this high desert ecosystem a first order priority for a Crooked River bill needs to mandate preparation of a Drought Management Plan that requires that during periods of drought all water users shall receive proportional reductions in their water allocations. 
Unfortunately the evasive language presented in points 2 and 3 of the bill’s Dry-Year Management Plan (P-12) is clearly crafted to ensure that irrigators will not have to participate in a plan that mandates proportional reductions in water allocations during periods of drought.  The bill even states that if water needs to be released to meet ESA requirements for threatened fish it cannot be taken from irrigation allotments. 
The first-fill mandate for irrigation water during periods of drought will result in the worst case scenario for being able to receive instream water flows necessary to maintain the re-introduced anadromous fish, and to maintain adequate water in the reservoir to support fisheries and other flat water recreational activities.  When one or a series of low water years will be a certainty in the future, an Adaptive Drought Management Plan based on the best available science needs to be the strongest, not the weakest, part of an overall reservoir and stream water management plan.  Unfortunately, as the bill is written, when reservoir water levels decline to critical lows associated with periods of drought the first-fill mandate for irrigators will leave little or no water for fish below the irrigation diversions above the City of Prineville.

• Another key concern we have is that we see no evidence that the best available science was used in crafting this bill.  It seems apparent that the expertise of fisheries biologists from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) – those most qualified to make critical flow decisions – was not sought during the planning process.  Furthermore, the bill basically eliminates their participation in future decisions about flows released to support the survival of fish. Instead it is projected that such critical decisions are to be made by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (CTWS) and the State of Oregon (which aside from ODFW, will include representatives from the Oregon Department of Water Resources, the Department of Parks & Recreation, and the Department of Environmental Quality). As only the ODFW employs fisheries biologists knowledgeable about the needs of fish, we are aware of no rationale that supports the inclusion of individuals from the other State agencies to be involved in fish flow decisions.  The ODWR, in fact, has a long history of supporting irrigation interests – not those of fisheries. Contrary to what is stated in the bill we believe that reservoir fish flow decisions need to be made by a Commission of equals including members from ODFW, CTWS, USF&WS, NMFS and BOR, with all representatives having expertise in fisheries biology and ecology.  Such a commission could make yearly flow decisions, including during periods of droughts.

• Another key concern we have is that there is no evidence that those who crafted the bill had the knowledge to assess and understand the flow models developed by the ODFW fisheries biologists or the Reservoir Management Model developed by BOR scientists. Both of these flow models were prepared by scientists who used the best available scientific data to model minimum flows needed to support fish in the Crooked River under a variety of scenarios.  Instead of using these models in making decisions reflected in the bill the writers relied on a Excel spread sheet scheme proposed by an ODWR retired Watermaster employed by the irrigators.  This simplified spread sheet proposal sets back science about 50 years.  In the present century plans and decisions should be made on the basis of the best available science.  For example, if the ODFW flow model for the Crooked River had been used people now learning about the contents of the bill from newspaper articles would have few or no concerns about seasonal flow levels for fish being inadequate or the reservoir being drained to support fish flows in the river. The ODFW flow model illustrates how flows from the reservoir can be managed to provide water for all needs when the reservoir contains various amounts of water.

• Up to the present time there has been no opportunity for impartial review of either your bill or the Walden bill by scientists with expertise in fisheries biology. We hope you will be agreeable to delaying movement of your bill in the Senate until after you are able to appoint a committee of independent scientists with expertise in fisheries biology to review and provide comments on it.  The other alternative is to introduce a minimal bill like that described on page 1 of this letter.  In any event we encourage a review process similar to that associated with the recent Sage Grouse Conservation Objectives team appointed by Ken Salazar of the Department of the Interior.  This is a standard process for identifying scientific solutions that was lacking in the preparation of your bill.  Nearly 100 million dollars have thus far been invested to re-establish anadromous fish in the Crooked River and certain tributaries, and no water for fish during periods of drought would be disastrous for this program.

Thank you for considering our remarks.


John R. Anderson, Emeritus Professor and Associate Dear for Research, College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley, California
William D. Davies, Emeritus Professor, Dept. of Fisheries and Allied Aquatics, Auburn
University, Alabama
H. Tom Davis, Retired Hydrologist, Montgomery Watson Consulting Engineers
Phil Havens, Retired Biologist, Bonneville Power Administration
Clair Kunkel, Retired Fisheries Biologist and Manager, Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife
Bill Merrill, Retired Fishing Guide & Past President, SunRiver Anglers
Max Johnson, Retired Fisheries Biologist, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources
William L. Robinson, Retired Regional Director, NOAA Natl. Marine Fisheries
William Seitz, Retired Director of the Alaska Integrated Science Center, and Deputy Regional Director of USGS in Alaska.
Gene Silovsky, Retired Fisheries/Wildlife Biologist, U.S. Forest Service
Marv Yoshinaka, Retired Fisheries Biologist, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

* (The above scientists have resided in Central Oregon for 10 to 20+ years and are particularly knowledgeable about the Crooked River). 

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