Aquifer recharge bill advances to Ways and Means Committee

Aquifer recharge bill advances to Ways and Means Committee

By Mitch Lies
Capital Press
June 23, 2009

SALEM – A legislative committee on Monday, June 22, moved a multi-part bill that could improve groundwater supplies in the Umatilla Basin and help the state develop a statewide water management plan.

“This is a piece of work I think will have a historical place in Oregon history for years to come,” said Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, co-chair of the Ways and Means Natural Resources Subcommittee.

House Bill 3369 and its companion bills call for the state to dedicate $2.5 million in lottery backed bonds for continuation of a Umatilla aquifer storage and recovery project started last year in the Columbia Basin. The project is designed to replenish the basin’s shrinking groundwater supplies by diverting water from the Columbia River during winter months, storing it in shallow alluvial aquifers and returning water to the Umatilla River in summer months.

The bills further call for the state to make available $25 million over the next four years for parties to borrow money at rock-bottom interest rates to move forward water supply projects in the Columbia Basin. The thought is these loan funds also would be used for the Umatilla aquifer storage and recovery project.

The bill and its companion bills also call for the state to dedicate an additional $500,000 in lottery backed bonds to move forward the state’s development of an integrated statewide water strategy to help the state meet its future water needs.

The bill also creates a water development grant fund, but stops short of dedicating money to the fund.

Bill advocates praised the bill as a key component for improving profitability of agriculture in the Columbia Basin.

“We feel like this is the beginning of our future out in the (Umatilla) basin,” said Cindy Finlayson, a lobbyist for the Umatilla Electric Cooperative. “After 30 years of being cut off from groundwater, we can restore some of our agricultural ground in the basin.”

Phil Donovan, a lobbyist for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, also applauded lawmakers for moving the bill to the full Ways and Means Committee.

“It’s a tremendous step forward,” Donovan said. “It allows the state to put some skin in the game financially, which is something we haven’t had.

“We see it as the dual benefit of helping the economy and at the same time, providing good benefits for fish,” Donovan said.

Others, however, said the bill falls short of providing significant benefits for Oregon farms.

Richard Kosesan, a lobbyist for Water For Life, said he supports several aspects of the bill, but objects to environmental constraints placed on the administration of the water development grant fund.

“The environmental restrictions have merit,” Kosesan said, “but they have dramatically tilted the scale toward environmental considerations, and because of that, long-term, viable water development projects possible under the bill are dramatically hindered.”

The Oregon Association of Nurseries and the Oregon Water Resources Congress also objected to the environmental conditions regulating the Oregon Water Resources Department’s administration of the water development grant funds.

“They are so steep, our members tell me they can’t afford to use any of that money,” said Anita Winkler, executive director of the Water Resources Congress. “One member told me, ‘If we could afford to do all the studies required for this, we could afford to do the project ourselves,’” Winkler said.

John DeVoe, executive director of the conservation group WaterWatch, said he believed the environmental constraints placed on the grant fund administration, are appropriate.

“Public money should come with some accountability, fiscally and for the environment,” DeVoe said.

The Oregon Farm Bureau was neutral on the bill.

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