Crooked River Flows & Management

I have been a member of Central Oregon Flyfishers since 2004. Like so much else in Central Oregon, COF has grown considerably since then, mostly with new members from out of the area. At last month’s COF meeting a question was asked about fishing the Crooked River in the winter during low flows which made me think it was time for another overview of how Bowman Dam and the Crooked River are managed.  Here’s a quick recap.

In operation since 1961, Bowman Dam was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation and is operated by the Ochoco Irrigation District.  Prineville Reservoir is created by Bowman Dam and is one of the few reservoirs in the West built by the Corps & BoR where 100% of the water is not “contracted”, meaning allocated to uses like irrigation.  Approximately half of the water at full pool is “uncontracted”.  Nevertheless, the only legal release for water from Prineville Reservoir was for purposes of irrigation and flood control, it was illegal to release more than 10 CFS for downstream fish and wildlife and even that 10 CFS could be held back for irrigation if needed.

Previously, the uncontracted water was allocated according to a technically illegal “gentlemen’s agreement” between OID and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife where allocations to OID and releases to benefit fish were equally reduced in low water years.  After being approached by OID, however, in 2012 then congressman Greg Walden sponsored a bill that would give OID all their contracted allocation, regardless of the amount remaining for fish.  That bill passed the US House of Representatives but did not pass the Senate after many conservation and fishing groups, including COF, made our objections known to Senator Merkley.

After two years of negotiations, the “Crooked River Collaborative Water Security and Jobs Act” was passed on the last day of 2014.  It gave the irrigators the “water security” they requested for their contracted water, but also directed that the uncontracted water (aka, the “fish water”) would be stored and released for the maximum biological benefit of downstream fish and wildlife, with a target of a minimum of 80 CFS through the winter.

Unfortunately, the Act has yet to be implemented to meet the spirit of the negotiations or terms in the final Act.  That’s another story (scan other Crooked River posts for more), but the recently completed Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan also covers the Crooked River.  While the Act directs that the fish water be stored and released for fish, in low water years there may not be enough to meet their minimum biological needs.  As part of the HCP, however, BoR and OID have agreed to release approximately 50 CFS during the non-irrigation season (winter), including some of OID’s contracted water if there is not enough fish water.  

Given recent and projected weather conditions, 50 CFS is about all we can reasonably expect to see in the Crooked River for the foreseeable future.  Note that winter releases could be higher in wet years, especially if the reservoir is in danger of overflowing. The Act remains controversial and was the source of serious disagreement among COF members.  Many believed that the gentleman’s agreement should have been codified in the Act.  This was unacceptable to OID and the City of Prineville, however, and as a minor participant in the negotiations I believe that the Act was the best that we could accomplish given the political environment at the time.  How you feel about fishing the river at 50 CFS is up to you, but speaking for myself, I don’t think it’s sporting.