2013 Oregon Legislature Roundup

2013 Oregon Legislature Roundup

Water issues were front and center during Oregon’s 2013 legislative session, and WaterWatch was there promoting sound policies and defending against efforts to undermine protections for our rivers and streams.

Here’s a summary of how our top legislative priorities fared in 2013:

Water Resources Department Budget

In what could been viewed as one of the biggest water successes of the session, the Oregon Water Resources Department’s budget was funded at a level that increases staff by ten full time positions. These include important positions relating to water measurement and reporting, increasing instream protections, and collecting groundwater and surface water data. For the first time in over a decade, the Water Resources Department will be adding rather than cutting staff.

SB 217: Fairer Cost Sharing for Oregon’s Water Right System

Responsible management of Oregon’s water resources is one of the state’s most pressing economic and environmental challenges. Part of this challenge is ensuring that the Water Resources Department has the capacity it needs to manage water. Unfortunately, the economic and political climate of the past decade resulted in the department losing many of its field and science staff needed to get the job done. Looking for secure sources of funding, the Water Resources Commission developed a concept, carried by the Governor and introduced as Senate Bill 217, which would have imposed a modest $100 annual fee on water right holders to help fund water right management functions of the state. If adopted, this modest fee would result in $8.5 million in revenue each year.

Unfortunately, after intense opposition by agricultural and other interests that directly benefit from the current taxpayer-funded subsidy of their use of water, the bill did not pass. However, the concept was assigned to an interim work group, with a commitment by the Governor’s natural resources staff to re-introduce the bill in 2014.

WaterWatch will continue to work to help fund critical water management and eliminate this unfair and unjustifiable subsidy enjoyed by water users. A key element of this effort going forward will be educating the public about this issue. Many Oregonians do not know that the state does not charge anything for the private use of water, a public resource. The taxpayer, through Oregon’s General Fund, subsidizes much of the cost of the complicated and potentially perpetual administration and enforcement of private water rights once those rights are issued. This is an issue of basic fairness and equity that is not going away. Stay tuned for developments.

Water Infrastructure

WaterWatch closely monitored state efforts to fund and stimulate water development projects to ensure that Oregon’s rivers receive the protection they deserve. In the months leading up to the 2013 legislative session, the Governor’s natural resources staff brokered a broad multi-stakeholder agreement on Senate Bill 839 regarding the Water Development Loan Fund, only to have that work skewered by Republican legislators in the last days of the session. WaterWatch views the resulting bill that passed into law as a step backwards on establishing important environmental criteria for water development funding. We will keep you posted on opportunities to weigh in on projects that result from this bill.

SB 401/838: Safeguarding More of Oregon’s Most Beloved Waterways

In response to suction dredge mining’s growing threat to Oregon’s iconic rivers and streams, a broad coalition of fishermen, conservationists, outfitters, and other river enthusiasts asked the legislature this year to take reasonable, science-based steps to protect these invaluable resources. After a great deal of work, the result was Senate Bill 838. Now signed into law by Governor Kitzhaber, SB 838 will help protect salmon habitat throughout Oregon through modest reductions in the levels of harmful suction dredge gold mining. A second portion of the bill directs the Governor’s office to lead state agencies in the development of a new comprehensive regulatory framework for the legislature’s approval in 2015. This framework would be designed to meet reasonable protections for threatened and endangered salmon and trout, while simplifying Oregon’s currently complex permitting process for this suction dredging. The third and final part of the bill—a 5 year moratorium on suction dredging in salmon habitat—will go into effect only if the legislature fails to act in 2015 by adopting the Governor’s new regulations. WaterWatch commends our legislative leaders and the Governor for taking this initial step toward better protection of our state’s rivers and salmon runs.