Bob Hunter: WaterWatch and Its Singular Role in Oregon’s Conservation Movement

As WaterWatch turns 35 and celebrates, albeit quietly, its singular and determined presence in Oregon’s water conservation movement, we thought it would be appropriate to turn to someone well known for wisdom and perspective: Bob Hunter.

Hunter has been a leading force in this, one of Oregon’s most muscular, tough-minded environmental bodies. A WaterWatch founding board member, Hunter co-drafted Oregon’s landmark Instream Water Rights Act and was the organization’s lead voice in the Free the Rogue Campaign, ultimately one of the most successful river restoration campaigns in the nation. The Campaign removed three main stem dams from the Rogue, including Savage Rapids and Gold Ray Dams. It also protected streamflows of 800 cubic feet per second in the Rogue when Savage Rapids Dam was removed. Those achievements demonstrated to the public WaterWatch’s gritty, unrelenting and powerful soul: It took 21 years to achieve these removals.

To many in the WaterWatch family, Hunter’s story is fun and well known: The Michigan native, who received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Michigan, made his way out to Oregon after law school in a beat up old car he purchased for $500.

Two seemingly unobtrusive events led to a long career in law that would also help launch WaterWatch. While dropping off a law school buddy In Eugene, Hunter hung around long enough to take a bar review course and later the bar exam. Also: The task of repairing a fly rod broken on the Blitzen River took him to a Medford fly fishing shop, Hook & Hackle. In Medford, Hunter started knocking on doors for work and founded a law practice with John Ferris that would allow them just enough time to pursue outdoor interests and do a bit of pro bono legal work as well.

Soon, Hunter also met Tom Simmons, board president of the Rogue Flyfishers. The two bonded over fishing and environmental issues but also pondered and worried about the state of rivers, streams, fish and wildlife. What followed, as they say, is a lot of history that would result in unprecedented changes in Oregon water law.

We spoke with Hunter recently, both to touch base during these strange and difficult times, and to reflect on WaterWatch as we celebrate our 35th anniversary.

Q: Your involvement in fly fishing inadvertently led to a lot of important things, including protecting streamflows, the birth of WaterWatch, and a lot of other stuff. Can you talk a bit about this genesis for those who simply may not know the back history?

A: I moved to Medford in October of 1978 after the bar exam. By that November or December, I found out about a group called the Rogue Flyfishers. That’s where I met Tom Simmons, who was on the board of the Flyfishers and later became its president. He befriended me and brought me on to the board by 1979. The Rogue Flyfishers did a lot of habitat improvement projects, where they worked with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on fish restoration projects. We’d supply the manpower and materials to do them. A lot of these projects improved fish passage on salmon and steelhead tributaries to the Rogue River. A lot of tributaries that Tom and I worked on were dry early on in the summer. So we were losing productivity for salmon and steelhead. That alerted us to a water issue. At the same time, he and I were generally getting interested in water, and how to protect water for fish. Oregon’s Water Policy Review Board was doing a basin update at the time, which was essentially a planning process where the Review Board would go to different basins and conduct hearings and try to establish policies to manage water innovation. They had the ability to do a lot of things: adopt minimum streamflows, close streams to further appropriation, limit the uses of water in a stream, and classify rivers for fish or domestic water use. There was an ability, through that process, allowed under a 1955 law in Oregon, to get protections in the Rogue Basin.

A local advisory committee was formed to advise the Review Board, and we joined it and became advocates for flows in the Rogue Basin. There were vast quantities of minimum flow proposals for key spawning tributaries and we presented that to the Review Board. There were a series of meetings. And we organized a lot of people to support these minimum flows. One member of the Review Board didn’t like this, however, and he organized a second meeting and got all the agricultural users to come out and speak out against it. Ultimately, the commission didn’t enact minimum streamflows, or not many of them. That really spurred Tom.

Q: What happened next?

A: Well, Tom was very upset and angry that those protections weren’t put into place. We looked at the whole water law system and how it worked and how it was possible to drain our rivers dry unnaturally by allowing appropriations without protections for survival flows for fish. This prompted Tom to take a look at the water code. Both Tom and I met with people in Salem to reform Oregon’s water law. This was the early 1980s—there’s no organization at this point. But during that time we worked on different concepts to protect flows. At one point, Tom even produced a major re-write of the water code!

Q: Tom eventually met Audrey Jackson, who worked for the League of Women Voters, and they eventually got married and started to hold a lot of think tank gatherings with agencies, legislators, conservationists, and others, in water law.

A: Yes, Audrey was also a gourmet chef from her days in New York and Philadelphia. And we gathered out where she lived in Hillsboro at a place called Horse Heaven. Eventually, it was Charles Wilkinson, then a law professor at University of Oregon, who suggested that what we—Oregon—needed was a state wide organization that focused on water issues, since each state had the legal right to manage and allocate the state’s water resources.

Q: That was a very singular need that no one else was providing. And still, today, no one else does, except WaterWatch.

A: Yeah. As we like to say, Tom and Audrey got married and then spawned WaterWatch. I spent a lot of time working with Tom and Audrey. Tom and I and others talked about drafting some type of legislation: We wanted to create something that had the same status and rights as an actual water right. So we drafted Oregon’s Instream Water Rights Act. We worked with Jeannette Holman, one of the Legislative counsels for Oregon, and polished off the draft. Then, Tom and Audrey carried the lobbying effort forward. We had people like Doug Meyer as a lobbyist; Audrey also had all of these political connections—John Kitzhaber who was then president of the Senate, Bill Bradbury and others. We organized a lot of other groups to support the bill. Lo and behold, in 1987, we got the bill passed. We made sure to draft the law so that water could be leased, donated or purchased and placed instream. One benefit of the law was to spark the water trust movement that you see today in Oregon and across the West. You can’t undervalue the scale of this achievement: It was the first law of its kind in the West and one of Oregon’s true conservation landmark achievements.

Q: That inspired another part of WaterWatch’s mission that’s changed and impacted how organizations involved with water operate.

A: Yes, at the same time, we realized it was important to have an organization that would monitor what was going on in agencies. So we started to monitor and play a role in water politics—to operate in part like a watchdog group to protect the public interest. We monitored the Water Resources Department and then when the Water Policy Review Board became Water Resources Commission, we monitored their actions as well. No one else was doing that. We were trying to remedy the lack of water management and trying to slow down the water allocation machinery. At that time, the state would issue a permit for any and every request for out of stream water use and let the system of priority work out who got actual wet water. This was no way to manage a precious resource.

Q: This was 1985 and 1987. That was a very different atmosphere socially and politically. Could we do what you and Tom and Audrey and others did today?

A: No. Part of what’s happened over time is that because WaterWatch was successful, the opposition—water users and agriculture—got better organized and well-funded. They also have developed a heavier, pervasive lobbying presence. The other thing: Whenever we have had success—and we’ve had a lot over the years—there’s been pressure, in turn, to block our path to further success by our opponents. But to our credit, we’ve adapted and become even tougher and more strong-willed as well, tactically and strategically. We have always had really good relations with people in the legislature. But, in the early days, we didn’t always have much grassroots support behind us. It forced us to look into growing the organization and getting permanent full-time staff on board and developing membership for support. We’re doing that now more aggressively while finding new and inventive ways to influence change and reform, pushing for good agency decisions and helping get legislation beneficial to water, fish, wildlife and those who depend on them.

Q: The removal of Savage Rapids and Gold Ray Dams happened 10 years ago. Which is both a lifetime and not so long, depending on your point of view. What are your thoughts looking back at what is a very historic episode in Oregon?

A: Removing those dams was a testament to a lot of things. One, it was our knowledge of water law and the processes that went on with water rights that gave us the leverage to take on Savage Rapids Dam. The district that owned it was illegally using water and had to prove what its legal right was—it was wasting a lot of water. That gave us the ability to file a protest when they asked for more water than they had a right to operate. That gave us a seat at the table. There’s a big lesson here. WaterWatch has had most of its success through negotiation. But you can’t successfully negotiate without power. And you get power by enforcing laws, or by being willing to enforce them. That gives you leverage in connection with someone who is standing in the way of doing something beneficial to rivers. That’s how you get someone to sit down and solve a problem.

Another defining testament is a characteristic that has guided us in just about every battle we’ve been involved in: We don’t give up. We’ve been successful because we’ve been willing to stick with an issue for a long time. It took 21 years to get Savage Rapids Dam out, dating back to when we filed our initial legal challenge to the water rights proposal in the 1980s. That’s a very long time.

Q: Patience takes time. But, also, it’s not always easy to get someone to the negotiating table.

A: It’s not getting someone to the table as much as the ability to construct a resolution once the table has been set. There are a lot of tables that we’re sitting at. But, sometimes, our leverage in negotiations is greater than other times. We still rely on state and federal agencies to enforce the law and keep pressure on users who are basically operating activities that are causing harm to fish and wildlife or to other public or recognized uses of water. Again, a lot of our ability to negotiate comes down to politics. But we don’t get involved in things like elections. That’s not what we do. Instead, we have to shine a light for reform and help build a demand for change.

Q: The critical period of the 1970s and 80s seeded a lot of the conservation movement of today. You’ve had a front seat to major happenings here in Oregon. Where is the conservation movement heading?

A: Well, there are probably others who have more focused thoughts on this than mine. But what I will say is that earlier on, in the 1980s, it seemed that if you were willing to be engaged and active, you could have an impact. Now, it’s harder to have an impact. There are a lot of people in conservation organizations who haven’t lived in a time where things were lacking, where they didn’t have a strong environmental movement, or an Earth Day, or politicians trying to do the right thing, and so on. I would say that Al Gore not getting elected was the last time we had a chance to have a strong environmental presence at the highest level of office. Even though we have Democrats in control of our governorship and legislature, ours—Oregon—is a pretty moderate government when it comes to the environment on the whole. That’s why WaterWatch is important: We’ve witnessed ups and downs over 35 years, fighting and advocating for reforms when others haven’t or maybe simply couldn’t.

From my experience, our role isn’t supposed to be easy. It requires experience and patience. Because when you put together groups to address water issues, you have to make sure the water users are there, people who represent the public use, but also agriculture and municipal water, and what eventually happens is that we have too many foxes in the hen house. That can’t be underestimated. The conservation movement has always had issues with unsustainable extraction and interests that are very directed and focused about ensuring that that resource is available for profit above all else. But, again, that’s why we’re here. We’re not intimidated by that.

Q: Let’s close the loop on that thought and the previous question. WaterWatch has done so much over 35 years. But what’s on the horizon for us over the next 35 years?

A: Ultimately, the main goal behind the organization was to protect, preserve and restore Oregon’s river legacy for future generations. We saw an issue where we had old, outdated water laws where our public waters were being allocated to the detriment of fish and wildlife as well as the public use of our rivers and resources. So our goal was to form an organization to achieve fair balance and to restore things because everything was so out of balance. It’s the same battle and goal, then and now. These are issues that are hard to move forward on. But we’ve done a great job of it and have kept things from getting worse and certainly made things better in many ways. So, while it’s fun to look back, it’s more important to look forward: There’s still a lifetime of work left to do.