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Despite Record Rains, Feds Look For Water Solutions

Sunday was the wettest July 17 on record for Portland. Rains and hail rolled through parts of eastern Oregon, over the weekend, too. But the mostly dry climate in eastern Oregon has federal officials looking for ways to store more water.

Baker City normally gets about a half-inch of rain in July. But sometimes, like this past weekend — the area can get most of that in one afternoon. That has federal water managers looking to make the best use of that water when it comes, especially with drier and less predictable weather patterns expected in the future.

Phil Rockefeller with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council recently questioned federal officials about one possible solution: storing more water.

“Are there any long-term implications for infrastructure that you would point toward, in terms of constructing, or looking at large, storage projects?” Rockefeller asked.

Increased water storage would require building or expanding dams and reservoirs. And that would raise water levels for great distances, often onto private land.

So when Rockefeller questioned officials from three federal agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Pat McGrane tried to answer carefully.

“Storage will become more and more valuable in the future, and you know, it’s a controversial topic. And of the three agencies — we, the Bureau — at least in the past, tend to get more earmarks to look at various storage projects. You folks might not even know about them,” McGrane explained.

But getting an eastern Oregon storage expansion to pencil out financially is hard.

The Bureau published a draft study of four potential eastern Oregon projects this spring. None of them survived the cost-benefit analysis.

Concerns about water supplies, though — especially among farmers — led the Bureau to go back and re-evaluate one plan. It’s for the Thief Valley reservoir, on the Powder River, north of Baker City.

An earlier study looked to raise the Thief Valley dam 25 feet and quadruple capacity. That was estimated to cost 280 million dollars. But close to half of the cost would’ve been to build infrastructure to pump and store water miles away from the river to help high-value crops in the Baker Valley.

The revised study drops plans for “pumped storage,” but will still examine expanding capacity and adding a hydroelectric turbine. It could also re-examine the project’s hydropower economics, fish impacts, and broader effects on local farming.

In the end, one official predicts a proposal that may cost less. But it could still fail the cost-benefit test because it would offer less water for high-value crops.

Pat McGrane with the Bureau of Reclamation says new studies are being done almost all the time.

“Doing one now on the Burnt system, the Powder system, Pine Creek, in eastern Oregon. There’s all these little storage projects – some of them aren’t that little — that are in some sort of assessment,” McGrane said.

It’ll probably take years for new capacity to be permitted and built. That’s assuming officials find a project worth pursuing.

In the meantime, Bureau officials encourage farmers and other water consumers to conserve water, as best they can, for the dry times.

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