State rejects water rights bid

State rejects water rights bid
The Willamette Water Co. had sought to be able to take 22 million gallons a day from the McKenzie River
By Christian Wihtol
The Register-Guard

MARCH 15, 2014

Capping a McKenzie River water rights dispute that has dragged on for more than five years, the State Water Resources Department formally has rejected a Lane County company’s effort to secure rights to a big portion of the river’s flow.

The state agency last week issued its final decision in the effort by the Willamette Water Co. to secure rights to draw 22 million gallons a day from the McKenzie, for potential sale to unspecified customers in the south Lane County area.

The water company can appeal the decision to the State Water Resources Board, which oversees the department, or to the Oregon Court of Appeals. Willamette Water Co. is headed by Greg and Jeffrey Demers of Veneta, who did not return a call seeking comment.

The Demers brothers, the water agency and the Portland-based nonprofit group WaterWatch of Oregon have been engaged in a long dispute over the water company’s bid to secure rights to McKenzie water.

WaterWatch lauded the state’s decision.

“The Oregon Water Resources Department made the right choice here in denying this speculative water proposal by Willamette Water Co.,” said Lisa Brown, staff attorney for WaterWatch, in a statement. “Under Oregon law, Oregon’s waters belong to the public — not to private water companies hoping to profit by monopolizing the resource for future sale.”

An administrative law judge in April 2012 recommended that the state agency deny the company’s application, saying the firm’s request for the water was improperly “speculative” in that it had no identified buyers and was not ready to expeditiously use the water.

The company has said it wants to line up customers in south Lane County, including in Creswell and Cottage Grove, build transmission pipes and sell water. But neither of the cities — which have their own water sources — has committed to buy water from the company.

Private companies under Oregon law and the water department’s rules must show that they will be able within five years to use the water permits they apply for, the administrative law judge wrote.

Testimony from the company and state water officials made it clear that the company would need decades, perhaps 40 years, to use all the water it had applied for, the judge wrote.

The company appealed the recommended rejection to the Water Resources Department.

But the water department, in its March 7 decision, agreed with the administrative law judge on all major points.

The water company has failed to apply for necessary land use approvals from local governments, including Springfield and Lane County, for the water withdrawal and transmission work, and the state can’t approve the water right until the company gets those approvals, the state decided.

Also, the company has not demonstrated there is demand within its proposed 75-square-mile service area for the water, the state decided. Approving the water right for the company, which then would not use the water for many years, would violate state law that requires water be put to maximum beneficial use, the state ruled.

The state Water Resources Department in 2010 had issued a draft order in which it granted the water company the right to the water, with a variety of conditions, including that the company obtain all the necessary land use approvals from governments that had jurisdiction at the five points where the company would withdraw water from the McKenzie as it flows past the north side of Springfield.

The administrative law judge, and later the agency itself, said that preliminary approval didn’t comply with state law, which requires that land use approvals be obtained first, before the state can grant the water right.

After the administrative law judge issued his recommendation, the company in June 2012 changed its request, saying it wanted only a single water withdrawal point, and that it wanted only 10 million gallons a day from the McKenzie.

But the state refused to consider that request, saying the time for submitting information for formal inclusion in the case record had already passed.