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Significant water funding sinks

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January 2009
Thursday, January 01, 2009
SALEM It was an ambitious plan felled by the collapsing economy. But since we’re talking water, contentiousness also played a hand.


The governor in the spring began a serious attempt to wrangle the state’s many water issues and proposed a $100 million effort, called Headwaters to Ocean (H2O), that would address wide-ranging water supply and quality issues and finally create a long-term water management strategy. Oregon is one of only two Western states without a comprehensive water plan.

Over the past several months, an advisory group to Headwaters to Ocean worked over the early proposal. Included were representatives from environmental groups, cities, tribes, agriculture and others with a stake in water.

In early September, “We concluded that there was not enough agreement among stakeholders to build a consensus in time to propose [a water plan] to the January Legislature,” says Mike Carrier, the governor’s natural resources policy director. So the group was asked to focus on asking for legislative support to continue designing an initiative as well as immediate needs for 2009. In November it delivered a proposal for a $55 million lottery-backed bond package that would have provided financing for Umatilla Basin water projects, along with more than $16 million for water agency budget initiatives. Then the economy tanked. When the governor issued his recommended budget in early December, what was left of water-related funding was a trickle: $3.3 million to fund the first phase of the Umatilla Basin project and to support the development of a long-term water initiative.

“What we hoped to do last spring when we rolled out H2O was to ask the Legislature to fund this initiative,” says Carrier. “Now we are asking for the funds to complete the planning for this initiative. Then we will come back in a 2010 special session or the 2011 Legislature with a strategy.”

The governor’s budget includes $2.5 million, to be funded by lottery-backed bonds, for a recharge project in the Umatilla Basin. The basin has suffered sharp groundwater declines and this project would divert winter-month water from the Columbia River into the aquifer for irrigation in the basin. Eastern Oregon was the region that spawned the controversial “Oasis Bill” that was defeated in the last session, which sought to pull more water from the Columbia year round. The  budget also includes about $492,000 for the Water Resources Department and DEQ to help get the water strategy done.

“Given how serious this financial situation is, we’re fortunate to put $3.3 million toward water issues,” says Carrier. “The number could have easily been zero.”

ROBIN DOUSSARD


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