Draining Oregon: Lawmakers plan hearings on 3 water bills

Draining Oregon: Lawmakers plan hearings on 3 water bills

by Andrew Theen
The Oregonian/OregonLive

March 21, 2017

Oregon lawmakers will hold a first hearing Wednesday on three bills designed to address the state’s long-standing inability to measure and study its groundwater supply, and how to pay for it.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, introduced the bills on the heels of a multi-part series by The Oregonian/OregonLive last year that examined the state’s groundwater crisis. Oregon doesn’t know just how much groundwater is available for ranchers and farmers.

Advocates expect a big turnout for the House Committee on Energy and Environment hearing, and opponents already are starting to rally against the legislation. The panel will discuss the bills at 3 p.m.

Before the legislative session started, Helm said that he had been considering introducing the bills since last summer. “This is a good time,” he said at the time. “We would be, as a legislature, justly accused of dodging the issue if we didn’t have some bills to discuss.”

According to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis, nine key agricultural areas in eastern Oregon allow ranchers to pump more groundwater than is available underground. At current spending levels, Oregon will not finish studying the state’s 18 drainage basins until 2096. The last full-scale review of the state’s groundwater supply was conducted by the federal government in 1968.

A state audit of the Water Resources Department released last December found that it has “no clear understanding” of how much water is being used and no plan for the future.

One of Helm’s bills would charge water users a $100 annual management fee, money that would help pay for groundwater research. The fee caps water users at $1,000 in annual costs if they have multiple water rights, and cities at $2,500. Personal wells are exempt. The bill, advocates say, would raise roughly $8 million per biennium for the state agency.

The second bill would require water users install a measuring device that captures the rate and amount of water at each point diverted from the water source.

A third bill calls for an unspecified amount of general fund dollars to help pay for groundwater studies. The state has said it would cost $45 million to $75 million to finish studying the state’s groundwater basins.

Jean Edwards, a farmer near North Plains in Washington County, said she supports the bills as logical next steps in beefing up the state’s groundwater research.

Edwards has operated a five-acre blueberry farm since 1980, and she’s never been required to measure how much irrigation water she pulls from McKay Creek.

But a few years ago, she spent a few thousand dollars to install a measuring device on her land.

“It’s an investment that was needed, but it wasn’t that expensive,” she said. The device has helped the farm reduce its energy and water costs.

She also said she’s willing to pay a water fee because it would help the state. I think the water resources department is shooting blind here,” she said of the lack of groundwater research.

Edwards is on the board of directors for WaterWatch, a nonprofit advocacy group that worked with Helm on the proposed legislation.

But opponents say two of the bills would put an undue burden on users.

In a statement last week, Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said the notion that Oregon suffers from “a shortage of water” is shared by many.

But Bentz said the measurement requirement and annual fee accomplish much but increase costs for users. “Installation of measuring devices on streams can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and daily maintenance can add up to thousands of dollars in additional labor costs,” he said.

Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the agricultural lobbying group also opposes the two bills.

Nash described the user fee as “a tax” that does not benefit the users. She also said the bills, which were introduced by Helm, were not developing with the farm bureau and other interest group’s involvement. The bureau represents some 7,000 ranchers and farmers.

The measurement requirement is “unnecessary and impractical,” Nash said. She pointed out the state audit found the Water Resources Department has data, but doesn’t have the time, staff or money to analyze it.

“It would be data for data’s sake,” she said of the new bills.

“The state already has a measurement program and measurement priorities that it has not had the resources to pursue.”

One bill the bureau can get behind is the request to spend more general fund dollars on research. While the exact budget request is undetermined, Nash said the farm bureau supports the push for more funding