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Project leaders for a hydroelectric plant on Bowman Dam are conducting a study to help keep the project afloat

One thing that became apparent about a year ago as the 2016 election cycle came to its dramatic conclusion locally is many residents highly value their natural resources and detest any organization that seems to take them away.

The pushback against a proposed national recreation area brought out hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters and a civilian-led organization is now trying to seize as much local control of Crook County's natural resources as possible.

It's in this climate that the City of Prineville finds itself struggling to add a hydroelectric power plant to Bowman Dam. The proposed 2.5-megawatt plant is lauded by city and county officials as a job creator that would add enough power to the grid to support up to 1,400 homes. The project only became a possibility about three years ago when Congress finally passed legislation in 2014 that, among other things, moved a federal Wild and Scenic designation boundary off of the crest of the dam to a location a quarter-mile downriver. Crook County's congressional representatives liked to humorously point out that there is nothing scenic about the top of a dam, which is obvious to the layperson but still takes a literal act of Congress to change.

That fight now won, the project faces yet another hurdle. An ODFW mandate requires any hydro project provide fish passage from one side of the dam to the other. This doesn't sound unreasonable at all, and most people who support local control of natural resources would probably agree that something should be done to protect fish.

Unfortunately, adding fish passage to a small 2.5-megawatt plant would push the project financially beyond the means of the city, county and Ochoco Irrigation District, all of which have partnered to make this hydro plant a reality.

But the group has come up with a potential alternative. They contend that a hydro plant would slow water spilling over the dam, reducing the quantity of total dissolved gas bubbles. The gas bubbles are toxic to fish and studies have shown that fish populations are suffering as a result. Local leaders are therefore conducting a study to prove that the reduction of gas bubbles from a hydro plant would save more fish and offset the potential loss from lack of fish passage.

Project leaders now find themselves at the mercy of the study first, and assuming its results provide the hoped-for results, the ODFW and its fish passage mandate. If there is a situation in which a natural resource agency can deposit some good will in the bank of Crook County, this is it.

Obviously, everything hinges on the results of the study, but if the results prove that mitigating the gas bubble issue would be a viable alternative, the ODFW should do everything in its power to greenlight the hydro project and allow it to continue forward. Remaining stuck on the rules as written would not only kill a project beneficial to the community — one that local leaders have already fought for years to accomplish — it would further deepen the divide between rural residents and natural resource agencies. Trust would further erode, as would any willingness of community members to compromise for the good of local interests and the environment. And frankly, that attitude would be completely justified.

Hopefully, the study provides the desired results. And if it does, ODFW should be willing to make an exception — much like Congress did when it finally agreed that there was nothing scenic about the top of a dam.

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