In Salem, WaterWatch advocates before the legislature, relevant agencies and commissions, and the governor for healthy rivers and to reform antiquated laws and policies that degrade our waterways.
2023 Oregon Legislative Recap: Despite the tumult, Oregon's rivers come out ahead!
The 2023 Republican Senate walkout upended Oregon's democratic law making process. The walkout caused delay, frustration, and undermined transparency in government. After six weeks of not showing up for work, Republican senators returned just a few days before the end of the 2023 session. By then there was too little time to address the backlog in a transparent and inclusive manner, with the result being that many bills that should have had robust public debate ended up being stuffed into broad omnibus bills for passage.
Despite the dysfunction and high drama, Oregon's rivers and waters did well in this session. Several common sense proposals that had been stalled for years by shortsighted opposition were finally passed into law. There were a number gains for Oregon's rivers, including important policy wins and new state capacities for smarter and more sustainable water management. Thankfully, most of the harmful proposals — and there were many — never became law.
POLICY GAINS FOR OREGON'S RIVERS AND STREAMS:
New laws that will help Oregon's rivers and streams and result in smarter, more responsible water management include: injunctive relief for illegal water use (HB 2929), water use reporting authority (HB 2010), split season leasing (HB 3164), addressing harmful algal blooms (HB 2467), new limits on confined animal feeding operations known as CAFOs (SB 85), funding Lake Abert collaborative management and restoration discussions (HB 3099) and an improved management regime for beavers (HB 3464).
Injunctive Relief — HB 2929: Oregon can now seek injunctive relief to stop illegal water use, including using or storing water without a water right, using more than allowed by a permit or wasting water. This new authority should result in better enforcement of Oregon's water laws and water rights, in part by stopping illegal water use more quickly than in the past. With climate change upon us, this is a welcome addition to the state’s enforcement toolbox.
Water Use Reporting — HB 2010, Section 26: Water use measurement and reporting is the cornerstone of smart, responsible water management. To date, only about 16 percent of water rights in Oregon must measure AND report water use. Without reporting, water management and accountability suffered. The new reporting authority will help Oregon ensure that significant diversions statewide are not only measuring, but also reporting. This law is a significant win for smart water management.
Split Season Water Leasing — HB 3164: The 2023 legislature made permanent a state program that allows split season instream leasing of water rights, allowing an irrigator or other water user to lease part of a water right for instream use each irrigation season. This tool provides a win win for both farmers and fish, by allowing farmers to use water early in the season, but then protect their water in the stream later in the season when fish might need it most.
Addressing Harmful Algal Blooms — HB 2467: Harmful algal blooms (HABS) are increasing in Oregon due to human activity and climate change. HABs pose significant risks to human and animal health, river dependent economies and freshwater ecosystems. Oregon's new law declares harmful algal blooms to be a threat to safe drinking water and a menace to public health and welfare, and directs agencies to identify susceptible water bodies, and to identify sources that contribute to occurrence of harmful algal blooms.
CAFO Limitations — SB 85: WaterWatch and its conservation allies have worked for years to reform CAFO regulations, which have significant water footprints. Oregon's new law requires a water supply plan for CAFOs to ensure they have legal access to water for all estimated water needs of the CAFO. The bill will also close a massive loophole by limiting use of the "stockwatering" exemption from permit requirements for groundwater to 12,000 gallons per day for new CAFOs (it was previously unlimited).
Lake Abert — HB 3099: WaterWatch and our conservation allies have long worked to bring state attention to the water issues plaguing the Lake Abert watershed — Oregon's only hypersaline lake, and a critical ecosystem for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway as well as local birds such as the snowy plover. The 2023 legislature took note and funded a collaborative tasked with addressing the ecological needs of Lake Abert and the whole Chewaucan River basin, among other things. This is a step forward in moving towards sustainable water management and restoration of this Oregon jewel in peril.
Beavers — HB 3464: This new law removes beavers from Oregon's "predatory" animal classification and gives ODFW more control over how beavers are managed on private lands. Beavers provide great benefits to Oregon's environment, including but not limited to: providing ecological uplift to streamflows, fish and wildlife habitat, aquatic habitat connectivity, water quality, floodplain restoration and wetland health. The temporary storing of water in ponds and aquifers also helps mitigate the effects of drought and temper downstream flooding, both of which are critically important in helping Oregon address the impacts of climate change.
Many of these bills have been vigorously debated for years, and we are thrilled that they have finally made it into law! A huge thank you to our WaterWatch members who wrote to legislators and/or testified in support of these important advancements for rivers and streams!
MONEY FOR SMART WATER MANAGEMENT:
This session built on the transformative 2021 session to address chronic underfunding of important agency capacities necessary to manage water responsibly in a climate changed Oregon. Many of these gains were achieved through the development of the bipartisan drought package, which funneled $174 million dollars to a wide variety of programs and projects meant to build resiliency for rivers, farmers and fish.
Highlights for the Water Resources Department (WRD) include the funding of an update to the state's water availability model which is used to determine whether water is available for new uses, the addition of more field staff to manage water on the ground, and funding to facilitate the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation's water rights settlement, and to addressing other complex water issues.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) secured four additional staff for its water program — arguably the most important agency program to secure instream flow protection and restoration for Oregon's rivers — as well as significant funds for fish passage, instream water right work, flow studies, cold water refugia mapping, stream and temperature gauges and other important data needs.
WaterWatch and our conservation allies worked tirelessly over the session to shape and influence the drought package and agency budgets, but we could not have done it without you, our members, who responded to action alerts and other calls to action to speak up for funding of water.
HARMFUL PROPOSALS THAT DIED:
In addition to our work to advance good bills and robust agency budgets, WaterWatch played an outsized role in stopping a number of bills that threatened Oregon's iconic rivers and/or threatened smart, responsible water management.
Bad bills that died included a bill that, among other things, would have stopped Oregon agencies from applying for new instream water rights after 2024 (HB 3368); bills to gut Oregon's fish passage laws (HB 2164, HB 2165, and HB 2930); a bill to allow unpermitted ponds across the landscape without any environmental review (HB 3023); a bill to limit the state's ability to regulate groundwater (SB 710); a bill to allow unpermitted storage of diffuse waters that would otherwise make it to a stream (SB 713); a bill to upend transfer laws in the Klamath Basin (HB 3580); a bill to allow an end-run around reclaimed water statutes in the Klamath (HB 2765); and a bill to allow an "enlargement" of irrigation water rights in the Deschutes Basin (HB 3365). As you can see, good defense also matters!
Again, a huge thank you to our WaterWatch members who wrote to their legislators to help defeat these damaging proposals!
NONE OF THIS SUCCESS IS POSSIBLE WITHOUT YOUR INVOLVEMENT AND SUPPORT
While the 2023 session was incredibly frustrating, WaterWatch is immensely thankful to our members for your support of this work. Your support and involvement — whether responding to calls to action or helping fund this work — makes the difference for Oregon's rivers and water future.
Oregon Conservation Network Common Agenda
WaterWatch is a member of the Oregon Conservation Network (OCN), and has served on the Steering Committees of OCN and Priorities for a Healthy Oregon.