Draining Oregon: Lawmaker strips specific dollar amounts out of water fee bill, Oregonian,

By Andrew Theen  |  April 19, 2017  |  The Oregonian

A House committee gave its blessing this week to a bill that would charge an annual fee to tens of thousands of Oregon water rights holders — but not without a last second twist.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, introduced an amendment to his proposed water user fee legislation on Monday. The chairman of the House Committee on Energy and the Environment removed all mention of specific dollar amounts from the bill.

“My intent in stripping out the numbers is to lower the heat on this, for all of us,” Helm said before the committee voted on the amended bill, “and to demonstrate that no particular number is in mind.”

Removing the dollar figures will hopefully “send a message out to all of our districts that this is a conversation that we’re having and it’s not a preordained conclusion,” Helm concluded.

The proposed user fee is the most controversial piece of a three-headed legislative effort to raise more money to help study the state’s groundwater supply and require that certain water users measure the amount of water they use each year.

Republican lawmakers on the committee and ranching and farming lobbying groups described the user fee as a tax during a public hearing last month.

Their opposition continued Monday.

“I appreciate the effort and also the gesture,” Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, said before opposing the bill. “But the only dollar amount that my district and those that use groundwater for [their] livelihood are going to accept will be a zero.”

Helm, a Beaverton lawyer, introduced the three bills before the legislative session began.

The bills came on the heels of a state audit that found the state’s Water Resources Department’s staff was overworked and lacked a vision for studying its water supply in the future. The Oregonian/OregonLive also published a multi-part series last fall highlighting the state’s groundwater supply issues. Forecasts suggest that Oregon will need an additional 424 billion gallons of water by 2050. The state has issued some 87,000 water rights.

Helm’s original bill would’ve created a $100 annual fee for water rights holders, with a maximum charge of $1,000 per year for any user with multiple water rights. Cities would’ve faced a maximum $2,500 fee under the original bill’s language. The bill does not apply to residential well users. It was not clear how much money that bill would’ve produced.

The decision to remove a specific fee from the legislation comes a week after the committee endorsed two other water bills — one that would require industrial and farm users who divert water from its source to measure how much water is used, and one that would allocate $8.2 million from the state’s general fund to speed up groundwater research in five areas designated as priorities by the state agency.

Oregon currently has one groundwater study underway in Harney County, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Helm said a work group, which includes environmental groups and farming industry members, will continue to debate the fee proposal even though the idea “has diminished in popularity and importance” in recent weeks. He said the proposal may still be in play.

WaterWatch of Oregon, a statewide nonprofit that has advocated for all three bills, said it was not concerned with the amendment.

The committee forwarded the bill, without specific dollar figures, to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

This article originally appeared in the April 19, 2017, issue of The Oregonian.