Protecting the McKenzie

Protecting the McKenzie
State was right to reject bid for water rights

Eugene Register Guard Editorial

March 18, 2014

The McKenzie River is one of Oregon’s most beloved waterways. Few, if any, of the state’s many rivers are as popular with tourists, fishermen, boaters, hikers and the nonstop flow of drive-by gawkers who cruise past portions of its glorious 90-mile tumble from Clear Lake to its confluence with the Willamette River.

The “Mighty Mick” also happens to be one of the last rivers in the West with significant remaining unclaimed water rights, an immeasurably precious resource that should be jealously guarded from speculators eager to lock up portions of the river’s flow.

That’s why it was reassuring earlier this month when the state Water Resources Department rejected a Lane County company’s long-term effort to secure rights to draw 22 million gallons of water a day from the McKenzie for speculative purposes.

The Willamette Water Co., operated by Greg and Jeffrey Demers of Veneta, had told state water officials that it intended to build transmission pipelines and sell the water to meet the future water demands of Creswell and Cottage Grove. Provided the river and its fish populations could withstand such a hefty withdrawal, that might be a request worth serious consideration.

But there was a critical flaw in the Demers’ request: Their company had not obtained commitments from either of the cities — which already have their own water sources — or from any other major body of users. Under Oregon law, private companies such as Willamette Water must prove that they will be able to use their water permits within five years. Not only had the company failed to obtain purchase agreements from the cities, testimony from the company and state officials made it clear that it might take up to four decades for the company to use all the water it had requested.

That means the company’s request was purely speculative — and speculation is not something that should be allowed in a state whose rivers and the water that flows in them belongs to the public. Only those who can demonstrate a legitimate need for a river’s water should be able to acquire rights to use it.

Other problems with the Demers’ application included the water company’s failure to seek required land use approvals from local governments, including Springfield and Lane County, for the water withdrawal and transmission work. Then there was the company’s inability to demonstrate a long-term demand for the McKenzie water within its proposed 75-square-mile service area.

The state’s decision was also prudent in light of the historical reality that once granted, water rights rarely have been rescinded by the state, even when they go unused for many years. The Willamette Water Co. might have held on to unused Mc­Kenzie water rights for decades, even when public agencies had legitimate, immediate needs for that same water. It was also possible that the Willamette Water Co. — or another individual or corporation that might have purchased the company and its water rights — could have ended up using the McKenzie’s pristine water for purposes quite different from those outlined to the state.

The Willamette Water Co.’s application was not in the best interests of the McKenzie River. Nor was it in the best interest of the many Oregonians who love, use and are determined to protect one of the state’s most iconic waterways.