Rough debut for Columbia water bill

Rough debut for Columbia water bill

By Mitch Lies
Capital Press
February 19, 2009


SALEM – It was, as John DeVoe of WaterWatch said, deja vu all over again in a House committee hearing Tuesday, Feb. 17, on a bill calling for summer water withdrawals from the Columbia River.

Many of the same players who testified on a similar bill in 2007, testified before the House Environment and Water Committee in this week’s hearing on House Bill 2406. And their positions hadn’t changed.

HB2406 is scaled back from the 2007 bill. Instead of the 500,000 acre feet of summer water withdrawals requested in the Oasis Bill in 2007, HB2406 asks for 132,000 acre feet.

And proponents of HB2406 propose to limit the withdrawals to five to seven years – or until groundwater levels in the Umatilla Basin can be recovered under the Umatilla Aquifer Recovery Project.

The scaled-back nature of the request, however, did not silence critics.

Despite a projected economic benefit for the Umatilla Basin of more than $100 million, a coalition of tribes, counties, ports and irrigation districts said it “could not support” HB2406. And environmental organizations such as WaterWatch and the Native Fish Society said they oppose the bill.

Rick George of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said the tribes back existing plans to recharge the Umatilla Basin’s aquifer, but do not back HB2406.

“Aquifer recharge is where the momentum is and where the state, the tribes and the coalition have coalesced around,” George said.

Umatilla County Commissioner Dennis Doherty also said he “could not support” the bill and presented a position paper from the Umatilla Basin Water Coalition.

The Oregon Water Resources Department, in testimony from Deputy Director Tom Paul, also said it was “unable to endorse” the bill.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said Columbia River flows already are below levels called for in NOAA Fisheries’ biological opinion.

“Removing 132,000 acre feet would only take us further from the target flows,” said ODFW Deputy Director Curt Melcher.

Supporters said the withdrawals called for in the bill bear little to no threat to salmon runs and provided committee members with scientific evidence from leading fish biologists backing their contention.

The bill, meanwhile, offers the region tremendous economic benefit, they said.

Pumping 132,000 acre feet of water into the Umatilla Basin would revitalize 52,000 acres of farmland, provide the area with an additional 1,000 jobs in farming, processing and distribution, and add $30 million to the area’s farmgate value.

The bill also calls for up to 1,000 acre feet of new water for municipal uses.

“We have a real water shortage and we need a temporary solution until we can get a more permanent fix,” said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner.

After the hearing, lawmakers set up a work group and asked the opposing parties to work toward consensus.

“We’re hopeful the parties can come together to move water forward in the interim while we wait for the long-term solution, which is winter water storage,” said Cindy Finlayson, director of economic development and regional affairs for Umatilla Electric Cooperative.

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