Firm Cuts Back Request for McKenzie River

Firm Cuts Back Request for McKenzie River

The Veneta company says it wants to take 10.4 million instead of 21 million gallons a day from the river

The Register-Guard
Friday, Jun 15, 2012

A Veneta company has cut in half its request for the amount of water it wants to withdraw from the McKenzie River for potential sale in south Lane County.

The Willamette Water Co. earlier this month told the state Water Resources Department that it wants permission to withdraw 10.4 million gallons a day from the McKenzie, down from the more than 21 million gallons a day the company has been pushing for since 2008 in a controversial effort opposed by river advocates.

The company on June 1 submitted an amendment to its 2008 application, seeking the lower amount and also reducing the number of points on the McKenzie where it would withdraw water from five to one.

The company on June 1 also filed an appeal, contesting a state administrative law judge’s recommendation this spring that the state deny the request to withdraw 21 million gallons a day of McKenzie water. The company filed the appeal with the state Department of Water Resources, saying Administrative Law Judge James Han’s recommendation was rife with errors.

Willamette Water Co. is headed by Veneta businessman Greg Demers. The company did not respond to a request for comment from The Register-Guard.

WaterWatch of Oregon, a Portland-based river advocacy group that oppossed the company’s 21-million-gallon-a-day request, criticized the lower amount also.

The reduction “underscores the speculative nature of the orginal request,” Executive Director John DeVoe said.

The requests for both the original amount and the lower amount are defective and suffer from the flaws outlined by Han, the group added.

Han’s ruling said the state should deny the company’s request because it was improperly “speculative” in that the company had no identified water buyers and was not ready to expeditiously use the water.

The company has said it wants to line up customers in south Lane County, including the cities of Creswell and Cottage Grove, build pipes and sell water.

But neither of the cities — which have their own water sources — have agreed to buy water from the company.

State law allows a municipal water supplier to secure long-term water permits that the agency can gradually put into use over decades as the community grows, Han wrote. But the same privilege does not apply to private companies, which under Oregon law and the department’s rules must show that they will be able within five years to use the water permits they apply for, Han wrote.

WaterWatch says the company is in effect trying to hog McKenzie water — even though it has no sure customers to sell to — putting the company in control of a resource that municipalities might need in the future.

Under state water rules, the Willamette Water Co. application for McKenzie water might be one of the last allowed on the McKenzie, because all or most of the river’s water is already allocated to other users or to maintaining river flows for fish protection.

In its appeal to the department, Willamette Water Co. said that in Oregon, “almost all water users are somewhat speculative in nature” and that water permits typically give the holder a “monopoly.”

Oregon water law “not only does not prevent speculation in water allocation or monopoly of water resources, it facilitates such speculation and monopoly,” wrote A. Reed Marbut, the firm’s attorney.

Han had faulted the company for failing to properly line up land use and other governmental permissions for the five proposed water withdrawal points, all on the McKenzie as it flows past the north side of Springfield.

But Marbut’s appeal said that getting such permissions is a “complex and lengthy” process. “These consultations would include issues related to impact on a number of threatened and endangered species,” Marbut wrote, and it is “unreasonable” for the state to require the company to take those steps before the company is promised the water it wants.

Dwight French, a Water Resources Department administrator, said the agency has not yet determined how to proceed on the case.

A final decision on the company’s requests lies in the hands of the agency director. That decision can be appealed to the Water Resources Commission, which oversees the agency, and from there to court.