2019 Oregon Legislature Recap: Myopia reigns, with advancements for river protection and smart water management few and far between.

Against the high drama of the 2019 session, including two Republican walkouts, many broken promises and sweeping polarizing behavior within the halls of Salem, water did not fare well.

Of the more than 2,750 bills that were introduced, more than 100 touched water.  Of those, less than a handful passed into law.  On the House side, water bills were largely scattered among three House committees: Energy and Environment, Natural Resource and Agriculture and Land Use.  The Joint Ways and Means Committee also directly impacted water through various agency budgets.

Most of the water bills in 2019 were attempts to roll back existing protections. These ranged from proposals to restrict the state’s ability to regulate groundwater in favor of surface water to attempts to legalize illegal storage projects built in protected watersheds.  Except for House Bill 2437 (HB 2437), which rolled back long-standing protections for wetlands and intermittent streams (see related article in this current newsletter), all were defeated.

While a few positive water initiatives moved forward, including efforts to update laws related to dam safety and removal (House Bill 2085) and extending placed based planning to address instream and out-of-stream water issues in the Harney/Malheur, Lower John Day, Grande Ronde, and Mid Coast Basins (House Bill 2084), the most significant gains for water, albeit modest, came in the form of funding.

The Legislature bolstered funding of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) water program so it can expand work to restore and protect Oregon’s rivers.  Legislators also granted the Oregon Water Resource Department’s (OWRD) request to augment its groundwater work, including the funding of an OWRD and US Geologic Survey groundwater study in the Walla Walla basin.  This will allow the state to address one of Oregon’s 12 priority river basins in dire need of groundwater information. Unfortunately, both the ODFW funding and the groundwater study funding fell far short of what is needed.

The Legislature also established the Oregon and Conservation and Recreation Fund to implement the Oregon Conservation Strategy (House Bill 2829) and provided it with $1 million if matching funds can be raised. While a start, this $1 million figure fell far short of the bill’s $17 million dollar request.

While we applaud the state for funding these select packages, overall funding isn’t enough to ensure Oregon’s water future.  Many common sense funding packages, including requests for funding of measurement and reporting, additional water masters in the field, work to resolve complex water issues such as those facing the Deschutes and Willamette Basins and money for ODFW to participate in place based planning didn’t make the cut.

At the same time, the Legislature handed out more than $30 million to specific water projects. Had the Legislature funneled this same amount of money into responsible water management and instream flow restoration and protection, Oregon could have made great strides in working towards a resilient water future.

All in all, the Legislature’s commitment to water can be summed up as scattershot.  While there were modest gains, common sense bills and funding packages that would have benefited all Oregonian’s fell by the wayside.  Regarding what did pass, the lack of any comprehensive vision was notable. The Legislature passed HB 2084 to extend place based planning to address the needs of fish and wildlife but then failed to fund ODFW’s participation in that planning. The Legislature (and the governor) also touted the passage of House Bill 2250, Oregon’s so-called “environmental protection act,” to protect against Trump Administration-type environmental rollbacks, but then passed out HB 2437, which rolls back protections of wetlands and intermittent streams. It’s hard to find rhyme or reason in these actions. With the Governor’s Water Vision in the making (see Summer 2019 Instream), it is time for the Legislature to have a rational and sustainable vision around water.

In a positive post-session step: The House created a Water Committee, where all water bills will land rather than being spread out among disparate committees. Perhaps this will help the Legislature sort out its current water myopia. We are hopeful that this committee will take a leadership role in protecting and restoring our state’s rivers, streams and aquifers as well as moving our state towards smarter water management.