The Legislature and water rights bills

By Oregon Water for Life,

The 75th Oregon Legislative Assembly officially convened on January 12, 2009. While budgetary matters are expected to command much of the Legislative Assembly’s attention, water resource issues will also be a prominent focus if the first week of the session provides any indication. During the first week of the session alone, lawmakers introduced proposals to:

– Require increased water measurement (SB 194);
– Facilitate dam removal in the Klamath Basin (SB 76)
– Allow unadjudicated water rights to be leased instream (SB 196);
– Modify the office of administrative hearings that handles adjudication claims (SB 275);
– Establish a  “state water resources strategy” (SB 193);

In coming weeks, Water for Life expects lawmakers to introduce proposals addressing ground water, exempt water rights, mitigation, water right ownership, and various other issues of interest and/or concern.

Of the specific measures identified above, committee hearings upon SB 193, SB 194, and SB 76 have already been held. Water for Life has provided written and oral testimony in opposition to each of these measures. Water for Life’s basis for opposing SB 193 is that Oregon already has a state water resources strategy and elected members of the Legislative Assembly should make modifications to that strategy if necessary, not unelected administrative officials. In addition, SB 193 proposes to put the Department of Environmental Quality on equal footing with the Oregon Water Resources Department in developing a state water resources strategy. Water for Life does not support DEQ having a leadership role in formulating water supply policy that is properly the concern of the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Water for Life’s basis for opposing SB 194, which proposes increased water measurement, is that Oregon law currently provides the Water Resources Department with sufficient authority to require measurement. Being as though the Legislative Assembly has already provided the Department with broad authority to require measurement, the Legislative Assembly should permit the Department to exercise its expertise in determining the circumstances in which measurement is necessary and appropriate.

Senate Bill 76, which authorizes a $200 million increase in Oregon electricity rates to fund dam removal in the Klamath Basin, has garnered considerable attention during the first several weeks of the 2009 Session. PacifiCorp, Governor Kulongoski, and a number of environmental interest groups are aggressively lobbying the Legislative Assembly to enact this legislation. The proposal presents a multitude of issues that should be of substantial concern to Oregon ratepayers, Klamath irrigators, and many others. Approval of SB 76 would implicitly lend the Legislative Assembly’s support to the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement that was released in January of 2008, and which presently is unsigned. Water for Life is aggressively opposing this legislation, which with the Governor’s support has garnered considerable momentum.

Throughout the 2009 Session, it will be imperative for Water for Life members to be engaged in the legislative process. While member participation is always important, it will be more important than ever for rural constituents to ensure that lawmakers are aware of their existence. Oregon’s legislative system is structured in a manner that provides committee chairs with substantial authority to decide which bills will be considered by the legislature and which bill will not. Historically, rural lawmakers have been selected to chair natural resource committees wherein water related legislation is heard. This session, however, lawmakers from urban legislative districts are chairing all natural resources committees.

The urban dominance of the committees in which natural resources legislation will be considered means that rural lawmakers will not be able to control the legislature’s natural resources policy debates to the same degree they have in the past. Therefore, Water for Life and other organizations will need to work especially hard throughout the session to ensure that lawmakers making water resources decisions understand the needs and realities of rural Oregonians.

Water for Life will keep members apprised of legislative developments throughout the session. Members interested in learning more about how they can help with Water for Life’s legislative efforts are encouraged to contact the Water for Life office.

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