Water – who has it, who wants it, who needs it – is an endless battle in Oregon. Skirmishes were fought in this past session, but a bigger battle looms.
A water bill that was passed by the 2009 Legislature awaits the governor’s signature, and two days ago it was reported that an irrigation districts group sees the bill as a "back door that could easily shut down winter withdrawals" from the Columbia River.
Among other things, HB 3369 establishes a lottery-backed fund for water projects and helps the Water Resources Department to keep working on a long-term water strategy. Proponent WaterWatch called it a landmark water policy bill that would protect fish and rivers, and for the first time places statute protections for peak and ecological water flows. Which is what has the irrigators worried. HB 3369 had a long, winding, interesting journey through the Legislature, including bipartisan leadership.
While all this might seem a bit insider-baseball to most readers, it isn't. Oregon is one of only two Western states without a strategic water management plan, and taking any step toward that is huge. It's huge if you are for such a plan, and huge if you are against it. And there are many factions on each side of the argument. If you live in the metro Portland area, where most of the state's population resides, and have rain falling on your head most of the year, you wonder: so what? Who needs to manage water in a state where there's so much of it? Well, there isn't unlimited water in this state, and it's going to become even more scarce as the population grows and the climate changes in the face of already-dwindling water availability for farms, fish and people.
In January, I wrote about an ambitious plan for water management called Headwaters to Ocean (H2O). It was a $100 million idea by the governor to take a comprehensive approach to addressing the state’s many serious water supply and quality issues, and create a comprehensive water plan. But the effort was squashed under the weight of a bad economy and warring factions. (Opponent Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, in a March newsletter said the plan “would create stringent new water regulations from the mountain tops to the ocean estuaries.”)
When I spoke in December to Mike Carrier, the governor’s natural resources policy director, for that story, he said: “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.”
Two years ago, I wrote about the “Oasis” bill’s journey through the 2007 Legislature. It was an attempt by Eastern Oregon groups, funded by the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, to pull more water from the Columbia River year-round. It, too, had a long, interesting journey through the session, and was ultimately defeated. But Oasis laid bare the tensions surrounding water issues and prompted the governor to promise some help to the Umatilla area and to launch the H20 effort.
HB 3369 does provide for funding for aquifer recharge in the Umatilla Basin, which suffers from declining groundwater. And its journey, too, illuminated again the deep divide among the state’s ranchers, farmers, cities, tribes conservationists, consumers, water districts – the list is long - about the future of water rights and usage in the state.
So stay tuned. The issues are far from settled. If you thought the Oasis party was a humdinger, or that HB 3369 was a tough battle, stand back and put the blast shields up if H2O ever makes it to session.