Officials want water user protections in proposed Owyhee Act

NYSSA — The Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act has been introduced by Oregon’ s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley in the U.S. Senate. The proposal is to conserve and manage federal land in Malheur County, as well as protect and develop economy, and provide protections for water users — but there are concerns.

One those concerns is a provision that approximately 14.7 miles of the Owyhee River from the base of the dam would be managed as a recreational river.

Jay Chamberlin, manager of the Owyhee Irrigation District, said at a district meeting Tuesday, that the river segment would include the district’s compound that includes housing for the operators of the dam, a museum and other facilities.

Since in the bill, the segment would be managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Chamberlin wondered aloud how that would work out. This is because the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the Owyhee project, has designated the compound as “the Owyhee Dam Historic District.”

He is concerned about the irrigation district’s ability to maintain its facilities along the Owyhee River, he said.

As for the Owyhee Reservoir itself, the bill proposes a feasibility study to look at establishing one or two marinas and a paddle board on the lake. It also proposes making improvements to existing state parks and private camps along the reservoir.

The act also suggests a way to improve the Owyhee Dam Road, which has been in discussion for several years. If adopted, the act would authorize the county to collect fees or tolls for use of the road to pay for road improvements.

That has been suggested during earlier discussions about how to fix the road.

Also proposed in the bill are three scenic loop roads in the Owyhees, include Succor Creek, Birch Creek — both along or near the reservoir — and Three Forks, along the upper Owyhee River.