2013 could be a watershed year for water in Oregon

2013 could be a watershed year for water in Oregon
By Mitch Lies
Capital Press

January 8, 2013

Lawmakers will gather in Salem Jan. 14 to kick off the 2013 Oregon Legislature with an eye on water.

Among other water issues expected to surface this session, lawmakers will debate the merits of a new water-right management fee and whether to authorize bonds for water-supply development.

And legislators will have a new tool to guide their debate. Oregon’s first Integrated Water Resources Strategy was adopted Aug. 2 by the Oregon Water Resources Commission.

“The fact that we now finally have a strategy that sets out a vision in the future for where we are headed is a great accomplishment,” said Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy director.

In addressing the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee in December, Whitman said Kitzhaber crafted his proposed 2013-15 budget with an eye toward implementing the strategy.

Among other water-related provisions, the budget includes $22 million in bond financing for the development of water-supply projects in Oregon.

“Oregon is moving into a new role in water resources,” Whitman told the committee. “It is a role that many of our neighboring states have taken on in terms of an active partner in water resources development with the federal government, with local partners, with private industry.

“This is a down payment on Oregon beginning to do that same thing,” Whitman said. “Not just for irrigated agriculture, although that is important and there is a strong economic development component of this, but also for eco-system function, for improving the condition of our fisheries.”

Katie Fast, government affairs director of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the provision offers farmers their first good opportunity for new water-supply development in quite some time.

“I think this is a year of opportunity for water development in Oregon,” Fast said.

“For the first time in a long time we’re seeing a request for funds for a water-supply development program,” said Brenda Bateman, spokesperson for the Oregon Water Resources Department. “That includes above and below ground storage, interstate partnerships to gain access to stored water, and other strategies. And we just haven’t had those kinds of strategic conversations in a very long time.”

The proposed budget also calls for implementation of a water right management fee that farm interests are cool on.

“We will be opposing that fee,” Fast said. “We have a lot of concerns around a water fee that the state would start charging for the use of a resource that private individuals have put forward the groundwork and expense to develop.”

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said he is concerned that farmers won’t obtain direct benefits from the fees.

“What we need to do is show what the benefit is for the fee, beyond just the additional dollars for the department,” Stone said.

“Our hope is to see how the fee is constructed, how those dollars are distributed within basins and the equity part of it before we render a decision (whether to support or oppose the fee),” Stone said.

Kitzhaber is proposing the fee as a way to provide more stable funding for an agency that has long relied on general fund dollars to support the bulk of its financing.

“The reality is, long term, this department has relied heavily on general fund dollars,” Whitman said. “And in order to provide a stable platform for both economic development purposes and resource conservation purposes, we need a more diversified funding base for this agency that is more akin to what most of the other natural resource agencies have,” Whitman said.

The initial proposal is to charge water users $100 per water right per year, with a $1,000 cap for any one farm.

Overall, Stone applauded the governor for his commitment to the Oregon Department of Water Resources. The governor’s budget boosts the agency’s funding by more than $15 million, moving it from $51.7 million in 2011-13 to just under $66 million in the 2013-15 biennium.

“It reverses a trend of disinvestment in natural resources agencies,” Stone said, “and for that, we give the governor a lot of credit.”

The increase includes about a $5 million bump in general fund support.