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New course for water ideas

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Articles - Jan/Feb 2012
Thursday, January 19, 2012

By Robin Doussard

A bill heading toward the 2012 session would create a group to study taking more water from the Columbia River.

Water use is an ongoing issue in the state, as farmers, industry, conservationists and governments, particularly in Eastern Oregon, all vie for an increasingly stressed resource. As the 2012 legislative session gets under way Feb. 1, this year is no different. What is different, according to Richard Whitman, the governor’s natural resources policy director, will be collaboration around ways to look at mitigation of new Columbia River withdrawals and new storage projects.

“In the past it has focused on bucket-for-bucket mitigation,” says Whitman. “That policy is not changing right now. But instead of putting water back into the system, let’s look at key limiting factors … we’re trying to change the discussion to think more broadly.” He points to Washington State, which has done more to develop its existing water rights than Oregon and has been more aggressive about funding storage projects. Whitman says involving Washington will be key because of that and the interdependency of the two states.

In addition, Rep. Mike McLane (R-Medford) will introduce a bill to create a Columbia River task force that would make a plan for the new allocation of 450,000 acre-feet from surface or storage sources with the ambitious goal of benefiting agriculture, industry, endangered species, municipalities and conservation efforts. That plan would be presented to the 2013 legislative session.

Trying to claim more water from the Columbia has long been controversial because of endangered fish species, tribal water rights, hydropower needs and the myriad local, state and federal agencies involved. In 2007, the so-called “Oasis” bill pushed by Eastern farmers, utilities and businesses aggressively sought more Columbia water during restricted summer months. Then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski threatened to veto it if it made it to his desk. It failed in the Senate. Whitman says Gov. John Kitzhaber wants a collaborative effort and this bill sets that in motion. He says the governor is talking with a number of legislators from Eastern Oregon about these issues.

“We need jobs, we need fish habitat, we need aquifer recharge,” says McLane. “One thing for sure is that it’s time to stop arguing.”


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