Endangered—Irrigated Agriculture

By Helen Moore,
Water for Life, Return Flows Newsletter

The question of the day is can irrigated agriculture survive in the current political climate? Everyone has heard expressed that “water is the oil of the 21st century” and “whiskey’s for drinkin, water’s for fightin”.  Truer words have never been spoken.

Over the past several weeks Representative Jackie Dingfelder (D-Portland) Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Environment, has conducted five Water Roundtables around the state.  According to the promotional material for the gatherings, “The mission of the Statewide Water Roundtables is to receive input and advice from Oregonians and develop information that will inform efforts to identify and communicate a vision describing where Oregon is, where Oregon is going, and where Oregonians want to be with respect to adaptive, integrated, equitable, and sustainable water management.”  Each session had basically the same format: participant input on issues of concern, presentations from local “experts”, small group discussion on solutions to the earlier presented concerns and reporting back to the full group on solutions. 

Water for Life had representatives at all five Roundtables and overall found that while the concept was good, the process was flawed.  At every opportunity agriculture was portrayed as a “water hog”, using most of the available water in the state with no balancing statement about how that water use benefits society  Another overriding theme was that the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation does not work in the 21st Century and water should be managed more like land use.  There seemed to be little understanding that water rights are private property rights and cannot be taken without compensation.

Many at the forums, municipalities and environmentalist are looking at agricultural water to solve their concerns.  Agriculture needs to be prepared for a move toward acquiring water through imminent domain.

Representative Dingfelder made a strong bid during the 2007 legislative session to secure legislation that would require permits for exempt domestic wells. Measure 37 was used prominently as the impetus for proposed restrictions on exempt domestic wells. According to proponents of restrictions, the number of new wells associated with Measure 37 developments would produce a cumulative impact on the state’s groundwater that would justify or necessitate increased regulations.

Measure 37 was effectively repealed by Measure 49 and therefore cannot be as effectively used as justification for restrictions on exempt domestic wells.  Nevertheless, leadership is committed to securing restrictions on exempt domestic wells as a backdoor mechanism for controlling land-use. Therefore, Water for Life is prepared to again face an aggressive effort to impose restrictions on exempt domestic wells during the 2009 Oregon Legislative Session.

Legislation to enhance mandatory water measurement has been a re-occurring issue of concern for Water for Life.

During the 2007 Oregon Legislative Session, Water for Life was successful in defeating a concerted bid to greatly expand mandatory measurement in Oregon.  Unfortunately, Representative Dingfelder has not relented on this issue and has worked aggressively throughout the 2008 interim to build the foundation for a successful legislative proposal to expand water measurement in Oregon. This has been done by developing a “consensus group” on domestic wells and the “roundtables”. Both are designed to lead to the conclusion that enhanced water measurement is necessary to protect groundwater resources, thereby bolstering the case for water measurement legislation during the 2009 Oregon Legislative Session.  Water for Life is prepared to work diligently to block this type of unnecessary legislation.

The Governor’s H20 Initiative has also been a hotbed of activity during the 2008 interim.  As originally introduced, the Governor’s H20 Initiative proposed to appropriate more than $100 million per biennium to water related endeavors associated with global warming, water supply and conservation. Under the original version of the proposal, funding for the H20 Initiative would come from anticipated growth in Oregon Lottery receipts. A review of lottery receipts, whoever, suggests the lottery will not provide sufficient revenue to fund the H20 program, while holding existing programs harmless. Although the proposal purported to provide benefits to agriculture, a close review of the program suggested that any such benefit would be negligible, particularly in comparison to the resources allocated to environmental endeavors.

Since the Governor’s original H20 initiative was introduced, it has become increasingly clear that Oregon is facing a budget crisis. This realization has caused the Governor to scale back his original H20 proposal. The modified proposal is contained in coordinated budget requests from Water Resources Dept, Dept of Fish and Wildlife and Dept of Environmental Quality.

These are just examples for the challenges our industry is facing. Water for Life will be working with our members and industry partner to protect your interests in the 2009 Oregon Legislative Session.

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