Legislative “Odd Couple” Tackles Water Issues

Legislative “Odd Couple” Tackles Water Issues

By Chris Lehman
Oregon Public Broadcasting
March 26, 2009


One of Mark Twain’s many famous quotes is:  “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”

Nowhere is that more true than in the west.

The Oregon Legislature has spent the better part of its history untangling fights over water.  But this year, leaders in the House are trying a new strategy:  They put together two of the Legislature’s most seemingly opposite lawmakers and told them to hash out a solution.  Salem Correspondent Chris Lehman reports.

One is a septuagenarian Republican from rural eastern Oregon.  The other is a thirty-something Democrat from Portland.  The first is the longest serving member of the Oregon House and is seen as an elder statesman…that would be Bob Jenson.  The second is less than three months into his Legislative career and recently yelled “CRAP” on the House floor.  That would be Jefferson Smith.

Jefferson Smith: “Working with Representative Jenson has been marvelous, because I respect him very much and he tolerates me”

Jefferson Smith was born and raised in east Portland.  Before this year, most of his knowledge of eastern Oregon came from a summer working as a farmhand on a relative’s ranch.

Jefferson Smith: “It was hot, it was smelly, it was dirty.”

Smith says the experience made him swear off farming as a career.  A few years later he was accepted into Harvard Law School.  That was 1996, the same year that Bob Jenson was elected to the Oregon House.

Not surprisingly, the two have already been dubbed the “Odd Couple” by their Legislative colleagues.  And if Jenson is bothered by Smith’s youthful manner, he doesn’t show it:

Bob Jenson: “Young people have a lot of wonderful ideas and a lot of energy that some of us older folks have lost.  It is refreshing to work with him.  It’s been a delightful experience.”

The question is whether the two can bridge their ideological divide.

Jenson and Smith have formed a two-member subcommittee on water resources, and recently took a field trip through some eastern Oregon farmland.  They’re here to learn more about irrigation and the Columbia River.

For Jenson, these are his regular stomping grounds.  For Smith, it was a chance to ask a lot of questions:

Jefferson Smith:  “Related question, how much do we lose to evaporation as it does down?”

A few local officials and environmentalists tagged along.  Steve Eldrige of the Umatilla Electric Cooperative was impressed at how Smith approached the thorny issues of irrigation and conservation.

Steve Eldridge:  “Jefferson Smith seems to be a very genuine individual, committed to really understanding.  I don’t know what his ultimate outcome will be, but I am impressed with his interests and focus on trying to understand.”

John Devoe of Portland-based WaterWatch of Oregon was a little more cautious.  WaterWatch opposes a bill to withdraw more water from the Columbia River to irrigate farms.  Devoe is urging Smith to remember the needs of the people and salmon downriver.

John Devoe: “I hope he appreciates the complexity of water issues, and that there often is not a silver bullet solution and that to have a project be successful you need to consider all interests.”

And that’s a pretty good summary of the political tightrope that Jefferson Smith and Bob Jenson are walking right now.  But Smith says working with Jenson just might do the trick, even though party affiliation and more than 40 years in age separate them.

Jefferson Smith: “I think it offers a good diversity of viewpoints, a good diversity of experience, a chance for me to ask dumb questions, and he has enough patience and has been a teacher so he is willing to answer some of those questions.  Hopefully I will also add something to the equation and hopefully together we’ll be able to push forward together on something.”

Just what that something will look like will be the subject of many more legislative hearings.  But whatever ultimately emerges, Representative Jenson says time is of the essence:

Bob Jenson: “The reality is in Oregon we are running out of water.  As more and more people come to Oregon the demand on this resource just keeps growing and growing and growing.”

And after this eastern Oregon field trip is over, the young Portland Democrat and the old Pendleton Republican will head back to Salem with hopes of finding common ground in an age-old tug-of-war.

The Oregon Legislature is considering several water bills this year.  Here are two of them:

Senate Bill 193 (PDF)
House Bill 2406 (PDF)

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