Draining Oregon: Bill to Fund $8.2 Million in Groundwater Studies Passes Key Hurdle

By Andrew Theen  |  April 14, 2017  |  The Oregonian

The House Committee on Energy and the Environment on Wednesday endorsed House Bill 2707, which some lawmakers say would dramatically accelerate the state’s ability to analyze its groundwater supply. That legislation now heads to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, the state’s budget writing body.

“This is something that should have been done years ago,” Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said of the general fund request before supporting a plan to move the bill out of the committee. The eastern Oregon Republican said the bill was in “everyone’s interest” and that water research should come out of the general fund — the largest discretionary pot of cash, which is funded by income taxes and businesses.

The bipartisan endorsement marked a significant step forward for one of three water bills introduced by Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton.

Rep. Helm filed three would-be bills Wednesday that would increase the state’s ability to study its groundwater supplies, charge business and agriculture users $100 fee annually for permits, and require certain water users track how much they use each year.

The measures come on the heels of a December 2016 audit from the Secretary of State’s office that found the Water Resources Department was understaffed, overworked and had no plan for the future. The multi-part “Draining Oregon” series in The Oregonian last year also highlighted the decades-old problem. The report found that state water regulators are largely flying blind and have no idea how much water the agricultural industry — which accounts for 85 percent of the state’s water consumption — uses each year.

The inability to quantify the underground water supply is a significant issue as the population continues to grow, and demand with it. Forecasters say Oregon’s cities, businesses and agricultural industry will need an additional 424 billion gallons of water by 2050. The state has 110,000 miles of rivers and streams, 1,400 named lakes and an underground network of connected reservoirs that provide water for millions of people.

Oregon has studied just one-third of its basins, and the department doesn’t have a centralized database to share resources, auditors said, and the water resources agency’s 160 employees often were unable to “perform meaningful and in-depth analyses” of the underground reservoirs.

If approved, the $8.2 million general fund request would allow the department to expand in a hurry. The agency estimates it would hire 20 additional employees and kick-start work to study groundwater levels in five drainage regions designated as priorities for the state.

Helm said Wednesday there was “strong support for more groundwater studies” despite the obvious budget challenges. Oregon lawmakers face a $1.6 billion revenue shortfall.

The agency has one such study underway in Harney County, which the legislature paid for in 2016. That effort, done in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, is expected to finish by 2020.

According to a department spokeswoman, the $8.2 million request would pay for groundwater studies in the Walla Walla sub-basin of the Umatilla Basin, Fifteenmile Creek sub-basin of the Hood Basin, Lower Umatilla sub-basin of the Umatilla Basin, Powder Basin and the Grande Ronde Basin.

On Tuesday, another of Helm’s water measures moved out of the House committee and to the Rules Committee for further work. House Bill 2705 would require water users to measure the amount of water at the point of diversion.

Bentz voted to move that bill out of committee as a courtesy vote for Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, who was not at the work session.

But Bentz, a powerful voice in rural Oregon politics, said he wanted it understood that he would “never support” the mandatory measurement bill as it was currently written. A work group consisting of water rights and agricultural interests is still tinkering with that legislation.

Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, voted against both bills discussed in the committee this week.

“We feel like these bills are being jammed down our throats, rural Oregonians, whether we want them or not,” he said.

He described the proposals as “agenda politics.”

“We have urban Oregonians who want to know something, and they’re going to make rural Oregonians pay for it,” he said.

Nonprofit organizations on Helm’s working group, such as WaterWatch of Oregon, celebrated the week’s developments.

“We commend Rep. Helm and the committee for moving this issue forward,” Kimberley Priestley, WaterWatch of Oregon’s senior policy analyst said in a statement. “This progress represents good news for all Oregonians. We are now a step closer to addressing some of the highest priority water management challenges impacting Oregon’s cities and towns, fish and wildlife, and businesses and recreationists.”

A third measure, and perhaps the most polarizing, will be discussed by the same House committee Monday. House Bill 2706 calls for an annual fee on water rights holders. Agricultural interests have described that proposal as a tax. The fee would not apply to residential well owners.

This article originally appeared in the April 14, 2017, issue of The Oregonian.