SALEM — State Sen. Chris Telfer, R-Bend, wants the state to drop a requirement that local irrigation districts help fish get across North Canal Dam, on Bend’s north side.
Since early this summer, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has been in negotiations with the Central Oregon Irrigation District, Swalley Irrigation District and North Unit Irrigation District about building a fish ladder or other means of passage over the dam, which divides the middle and upper portions of the Deschutes River. The districts say the project will cost about $1 million.
The department says that two hydroelectric power projects being installed by Swalley and COID have triggered a state requirement that whenever existing river obstructions are renovated or replaced, fish passage should be added. The districts, which divert water from the dam for irrigation, say the law is being misapplied. They say they are willing to help pay for only about $400,000 toward a future fish passage project, and not until 2015.
If the department doesn’t compromise, they hope Telfer can get a bill passed in a special session planned for February.
Suzanne Butterfield, general manager of Swalley Irrigation District, said paying the entire estimated $1 million price tag would make the district’s investment in hydroelectric power not “pencil out.”
“It would be different if we were asking for more water at the dam,” she said. “We’re not affecting one iota of what happens up at the dam … We just feel that it’s very unfair to be saddled with this.”
Telfer, who is preparing a bill that would eliminate the fish passage requirement for in-canal hydro projects, agreed: “They’re not changing the stream flows … they’re not changing anything, just putting hydro on their irrigation canal.
Projects in the works
Swalley is building a small project about 5 miles from the diversion point. The project, in conjunction with a plan to pipe 5.1 miles of the canal for efficiency purposes, will help return water to the middle Deschutes.
COID is working on a similar project about 2 miles from the dam, one scheduled to start generating power by Sept. 1.
Butterfield, who is part of ongoing negotiations with the department, says the district needs the state to sign off on an agreement by April 1, when Swalley wants to start selling electricity from its project. Otherwise, an inability to start up on time will jeopardize the district’s ability to make debt service payments and honor other agreements that are contingent on the project operating.
“We’re all a little bewildered,” said Anita Winkler of the Oregon Water Resources Congress, a group that represents irrigation districts. She added that the two projects “are doing good stuff for the fish because they won’t take as much water from the river.”
Officials, activists weigh in
State officials don’t dispute that the hydro projects won’t hurt fish. That’s because screens at the districts’ division point prevent fish from getting in the canals.
But they say the projects still trigger the fish passage requirement. They say the law requiring fish passage is part of a long-term plan to restore fish passage around the state.
Rick Kepler, the department’s water program manager, said that in-canal hydro projects such as the districts’ are “a good thing.” But he said obstructions like the North Canal Dam as well as the Newport Dam at Mirror Pond “have been blocking passage for a long time; we’d kind of like to get that resolved as well.”
Kepler said that if fish passage is added to those two dams, just 1.3 miles apart, it will create a 90-mile stretch of unblocked fish habitat, helping native migratory fish populations, including redband trout, bull trout, suckers and more.
Two environmental activists, when asked about the state’s focus on North Canal Dam, said that other fish passage projects would be more beneficial from an environmental perspective. But Ryan Houston of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and Jim Seitz, who represents Trout Unlimited and Central Oregon Flyfishers, say they welcome any fish passage im- provements.
Butterfield said that irrigation districts are willing to do their part. In fact, they have been willing to pay for fish passage when the dam needs a major renovation.
That could happen quite soon, as the districts are among several groups vying for permission to build a hydropower plant at North Canal Dam itself. Any such plant would trigger the state’s fish passage requirement.
Telfer has submitted legislation to help the districts to the Legislative Counsel Office that provides legal services to the Legislature. Once the bill has been vetted legally, she hopes to introduce it in February.
Source: The Bulletin ©2009