House Bill 2437: The Oregon Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown miss the forest for the trees with climate resiliency goals

Wetlands, like this autumn scene of the Tualatin Wildlife Refuge, are more than beautiful stretches of nature. They provide clean water and habitat, sequester carbon and reduce flooding. With the passage of House Bill 2437, however, wetlands in Oregon are increasingly in peril.

In the 2019 Oregon legislative session, legislators and Oregon Governor Kate Brown focused much of their attention on the Clean Energy Jobs Bill—House Bill 2020 (HB 2020).  This bill aligned closely with the state’s climate resiliency goals, especially in the face of federal environmental rollbacks. Ultimately, the bill failed—a victim of the end-of-session Republican walkouts and broken promises.

Still, there was an opportunity to help Oregon meet some of its climate goals and live up to its reputation as one of the country’s more environmentally progressive states by preventing the passage of House Bill 2437 (HB 2437). While characterized by proponents as a narrow “ditch cleaning bill,” HB 2437 is not so benign. It allows farmers to scour Oregon’s intermittent streams of up to 3,000 cubic yards of material (the equivalent of roughly 300 dump trucks) without going through the state’s removal/fill permitting process.  This permitting exemption also allows removed material to be placed on Oregon’s carbon sequestering wetlands for up to a year—without having to give notice to the public, federal agencies, tribes, and even the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The Governor and legislators generally ignored the climate implications of this bill. In addition to important natural functions such as controlling floodwater, cleaning and storing water and providing habitat for many plants and animals, wetlands sequester some of the largest stores of carbon on the planet. But when disturbed or warmed they release heat trapping greenhouse gasses.

Globally, wetlands represent just three percent of the world’s total land area, but sequester 30 percent of all soil carbon.  North American wetlands comprise 37 percent of all wetland areas globally, so their value to carbon accounting cannot be overstated.  Protecting wetlands from human disturbance helps limit the increase of greenhouse gases.  HB 2437 does the opposite; it rolls back legal protection for Oregon’s dwindling wetlands.  Across the state, Oregon has already lost an estimated 38 percent of its original wetlands, varying from 57 percent in the Willamette Valley to 91 percent in the Klamath Basin. HB 2437 will hasten this decline.

Despite strong opposition by 24 conservation groups and the outpouring of opposition by Oregonians (thank you to our members!), both the House and Senate in the state legislature passed this bill.  While Governor Brown originally signaled she was going to veto the bill, she ultimately bowed to pressure from farming interests and signed the bill into law.

The repercussions will be wide-ranging. Oregon’s environmental reputation has been diminished, and our state’s efforts to act as a stop-gap to President’s Trump’s rollback of protections under the federal Clean Water Rule have been undercut. President Trump’s rollbacks are estimated to strip roughly 51 percent of the nation’s wetlands and 18 percent of our intermittent streams of protection under the Clean Water Act.

Passage of HB 2437 also contradicts commitments made by the state to protect against environmental rollbacks.  In the spring of 2019, Governor Brown celebrated the passage of House Bill 2250 (HB 2250), a landmark law that was hailed as “Oregon’s Environmental Protection Act.” HB 2250 was touted as protection for Oregon from environmental rollbacks by President Trump. Yet, a few months later, the legislature passed and Governor Brown signed HB 2437, which unequivocally rolls back existing protections for Oregon’s rivers and streams.

What to make of these dizzying and contradictory events?

It’s hard not to argue that both the Oregon Legislature and Governor Brown sided with the same agricultural interests that prevented passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Bill at the expense of Oregon’s climate, wetlands and rivers. In doing so, both the Governor and the Legislature missed the forest for the trees. Oregon needs more wetlands that sequester carbon, not less. Not only did the 2019 session fail to move our state forward in combating climate change, but Oregon’s climate resiliency work took a step backwards with the passage of HB 2437.

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