2014 Oregon Legislature Short Session Ends With a Whimper
The Oregon Legislature’s 2014 short session, limited to 35 days, proved once again that politicians should not attempt large-scale policy changes within short time windows. With over three hundred bills to consider and move out of the original chamber of origin within two weeks, the initial pace was nothing short of frenetic. However, when it came to water bills legislators chose not to move several highly controversial bills, with nearly all dying in the first chamber of origin.
Some bills of note include:
An identical trio of bills – SB 1572, HB 4044, and HB 4064 – would have undermined long standing legal and scientific standards relating to groundwater permitting and regulation. The bills would have made it difficult, if not impossible, to manage groundwater to protect senior water right holders, whether they be farmers, cities, or fish and wildlife. None of these three bills made it out of the original chamber of origin.
SB 1578 and HB 4153, two industrial siting bills that sought to undermine longstanding Oregon land use laws for industrial development in areas of high unemployment, would have also undermined state water right permitting standards. These bills would have required the Water Resources Department to issue water rights for the construction and operation of industrial projects in areas of high unemployment, regardless of the effect on Oregon’s rivers and other water right holders. Fortunately, the Senate eventually removed all the damaging water provisions and the bill died in the House.
SB 1585, a bill that sought some changes to the suction dredge mining reform achieved in 2013, did not make it out of committee. Existing law – passed in 2013 under SB 838 – provides immediate protections for Oregon rivers by capping the number of suction dredge permits issued by the Department of State Lands in 2013 and 2014. For these two years, the law also includes restrictions against leaving suction dredges unattended and against using suction dredges within 500 feet of each other. The law directs a Governor-appointed work group to make recommendations to the 2015 Legislature for long-term protections. WaterWatch is a member of this work group. If the work group cannot agree on recommendations, the law will impose a five-year moratorium on suction dredging in waterways with Essential Salmon Habitat as well as their tributaries, effective January 1, 2016. This moratorium would protect some eighty-five percent of Oregon waterways. This session, a compromise effort regarding allowances for the 2014 mining season ultimately failed to gain traction, and SB 838 remains the law.
HB 4015 put into statute Governor Kitzhaber’s Regional Solutions Program, which works to promote economic and community development around the state. Under the original bill, HB 4015 established regional advisory committees in eleven regional centers around the state. These regional advisory committees, made up largely of business and elected officials, were directed to set regional priorities. Under the original bill, once set, these priorities dictate not only the funding priorities of all state agencies – including natural resource agencies – but also influence agency priorities and workload, regardless of individual agency missions. The bill did not provide for any opportunity for public notice and comment in the setting of these priorities, even though regional priorities could affect statewide lands, air, and waters. WaterWatch helped to negotiate amendments that inserted a public notice and comment opportunity into the setting of regional priorities, backed the natural resource agencies out of the bill’s funding directives, deleted language that would have allowed regional priorities to dictate natural resource agency workload and priorities, and deleted provisions that could have led to local control of natural resource agency functions. While we opposed the original bill, we were able to support the amendments that would change the structure of the existing program to be more transparent and inclusive to all Oregonians.
While the 2014 session ended well for Oregon’s rivers, this year’s sampling of bills illustrates the ongoing push to undermine natural resource protections that benefit all Oregonians. We anticipate this tension will bring a number of controversial bills in the future that seek to undermine existing protections for our beloved rivers and streams, so stay tuned.