EDITORIAL: Protect flowing resource

EDITORIAL: Protect flowing resource
State should deny speculative bid for McKenzie water

Eugene Register Guard
May 2, 2012

The Oregon Water Resources Commission should heed an administrative law judge who last week issued a proposed order saying the state should deny an application from the Willamette Water Co. for rights to withdraw more than 21 million gallons of water a day from the McKenzie River.

The commission should accept Judge James Han’s order and deny a permit application from Willamette Water. The utility is owned by Veneta developer Greg Demers, who says he wants to siphon large amounts of water from one of the state’s most iconic rivers and sell it to customers in south Lane County, including in Creswell and Cottage Grove.

It’s a bold and ambitious proposal that takes advantage of the McKenzie’s status as one of the last rivers in the West with significant unclaimed water rights. It’s also a plan that lacks, as the judge noted, an essential component: customers who have committed to buy the requested water.

“The company currently has no contracts to sell water and has not established that it will obtain such contracts in the future,” Han wrote in response to a challenge by the advocacy group WaterWatch.

The judge got it exactly right. It’s surprising that the Water Resources Department previously recommended that the commission approve the application, given the absence of committed customers, a struggling economy in southern Lane County that makes it unlikely the water will be needed, and the fact that Cottage Grove and Creswell already are served by municipal water systems.

State law allows municipal water suppliers to secure long-term water permits that they can gradually use over decades as their communities grow. But private companies, such as Willamette Water, do not have the same right. Under state rules, they must demonstrate that they will be able to use the requested water allocation within five years. As Han noted, testimony by Willamette Water and state water resources officials made clear the requested water would not be used for up to four decades.

An attempt by a private company to secure public water rights poses additional concerns. While it’s possible Demers intends to use the water exactly as outlined, it’s also possible that he — or a potential future buyer of the company — might use it for different purposes. It would be one thing to use McKenzie water to serve local communities; it would be quite another if, for example, an international company sought to profit by pumping water from the McKenzie into bottles for mass marketing.

Despite the seemingly ubiquity of water, Oregon is a state in which access to water is increasingly contested. Across Lane County and much of the state, Oregonians rely on hydropower to heat and light their homes. Judges routinely require that additional water be left in rivers to protect imperiled fish species. Every major industry in the state, from timber to high tech, requires water, often a great deal of it. Savvy environmentalists, public officials and developers all understand that whoever controls water rights will profoundly influence where cities will grow, where industries will locate and how farms will produce food for future generations. Of all the natural resources that Oregon possesses, water is the most precious.

The Water Resources Commission should issue a final order rejecting Willamette Water’s application for McKenzie River water, and in the future it should be more discerning in its allocation of the state’s precious unclaimed water rights.