2021 Legislative End of Session Wrap Up!

Despite holding session in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and uncertain economic times, the 2021 legislative session ended up being a surprisingly good year for water from both a budget and policy perspective.

AGENCY BUDGETS: Top of the list for the session were gains to the 2021-23 Natural Resource Agency Budgets. Specifically, both the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) saw unprecedented gains to their agency budgets, especially to their science and water management functions. OWRD gained 31 positions, an unprecedented gain for this very small agency (increased from 178 to 209 positions). And ODFW saw a 38% increase in their general fund dollars, much of which went to ODFW’s Water Program and the creation of a new Habitat Division. Reversing the chronic underfunding of these agencies, particularly of the science and water management functions, is critical to improving water management and river and aquifer health.

Key agency budget highlights include:

  • OWRD Groundwater data and studies: The Oregon Legislature not only rejected a proposed cut in the Governor’s Recommended Budget that would have lost 6 groundwater study positions, but it approved both HB 2018 and Policy Option Package 110, which together bring an additional 16 groundwater staff to the agency. With streams across the state over-appropriated, more and more people are turning to groundwater to serve their needs. Having adequate groundwater data to make sound decisions is one of the most important areas needing attention. We are thrilled with this news.
  • OWRD and ODFW tackling complex water issues: The OWRD Budget includes funding for staff to work on complex water issues in the Deschutes, the Willamette and select other basins. The ODFW budget includes three new staff to work on the Willamette Basin Reallocation.
  • OWRD field staff for on-the-ground water management: The OWRD budget includes 6 new watermaster positions to help with on-the-ground management, including managing for instream water rights.
  • ODFW Water Program: The ODFW Water Quality and Quantity Program is one of the most important programs across agencies for protecting and restoring instream flows. Bolstering this program has been a priority of WaterWatch for the last several biennia. The legislature added 5 new positions to this program in the 2021-23 budget, and we couldn’t be more excited!
  • OWRD Water Measurement Cost Share Fund: The Legislature dedicated $1 million dollars to the Water Measurement Cost Share fund. This fund helps water right holders pay for water use measurement devices. We are hopeful this will help incentivize increased measurement and reporting of water use across the state.
  • OWRD Data collection: The OWRD received $3 million dollars to purchase and deploy data collection devices to document both surface and groundwater (e.g. gages to measure streamflow and groundwater levels).
  • ODFW Fish Passage: The ODFW budget includes nearly $8 million to help address fish passage problems at dams, culverts and other obstructions.
  • ODFW Habitat Division: The legislature established and funded the newly formed Habitat Division within ODFW to elevate the land and water issues facing fish and wildlife and to allow the agency to more effectively work with other agencies to promote habitat health, protection, and restoration, and focus resources on challenges presented by climate change.
  • OWRD Dam Safety: The legislature invested over $6 million into OWRD’s dam safety program. This will bring much needed staff to the dam safety program and should help WaterWatch’s dam removal efforts.
  • OWRD Equitable Water Access: The legislature invested in conducting community led assessments of water needs of Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander and tribal communities and convening a Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group as part of the Integrated Water Resources Strategy.
  • OWRD Legal Fees: The OWRD budget includes $800,000 to fund its legal work, and $2.2 million to help the agency work towards resolving the contested case backlog, including resolving important instream water right applications that have been in limbo for nearly 30 years.

POLICY BILLS THAT PASSED INTO LAW: The legislature passed a few bills into law that not only help protect streams and rivers, but augmented the toolbox that allows for restoration of flows.

Protecting Wetlands from Agricultural Maintenance Activities: Of note, HB 3185 will ensure that materials removed during agricultural channel maintenance activities cannot be placed – temporarily or permanently – on undisturbed wetlands. This bill fixes a major problem with the program that WaterWatch and others opposed in the 2019 session, and will help ensure that ecologically important wetlands are protected from these agricultural activities.
Stored Water, Transfers of Type of Use: HB 3103 allows changes in the “character of use” of stored water. What this means, for example, is that an owner of a reservoir that is currently allowed to store water just for the use of irrigation can change the allowed use to other uses such as municipal or instream.
Groundwater: In addition to agency budget attention to groundwater data, a number of bills passed that will help not only with critically needed data gathering (HB 2018) but also on the ground repair of wells to help protect our groundwater resources (HB 2145), funding mechanisms to help domestic well owners address water shortages due to over-appropriation of groundwater and large agricultural wells (HB 3092, HB 2145), and other provisions to help the state better manage groundwater.

POLICY BILLS THAT WATERWATCH HELPED DEFEAT: We are happy to report that we helped defeat several bad water bills. These bills would have gutted Oregon’s fish passage laws (HB 2610), legalized an illegal reservoir in Southern Oregon (HB 2616), limited the state’s ability to regulate groundwater (SB 661), transferred select water management tasks from the state to local entities (HB 2251, HB 3228), fast tracked a dispute over transfers of stored water to the front of the line at the Oregon Supreme Court (HB 3091), and allowed small businesses to get around rules meant to protect the environment (HB 2334).

CONTINUED ATTENTION NEEDED INTO THE FUTURE: We are disappointed to report that SB 387 and SB 583 – aimed at curbing negative water footprints of large-scale industrial animal feed lots – died. And months-long discussions on increasing the pace and scale of water use measurement and reporting (HB 3166) fell by the wayside. These are important issues that we expect to bring back in the future along with other legal reforms to better protect our rivers and groundwater and lead to sustainable water management.

WaterWatch is hugely thankful to all of our members who weighed in this session, from the “virtual” budget road shows to providing testimony on policy bills! Your voices were heard and because of your support and help, this session was a success!