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Editor's Notes: Another river dance in Salem

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Robin Doussard
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
It just wouldn’t be a legislative session without a water issue to whack around. This will sound familiar. David Nelson, the Republican state senator from Pendleton, has introduced a bill that seeks more water from the Columbia River for uses ranging from livestock, mining and irrigation to recreation, wildlife and fish.

“My wife called me crazy,” Nelson says. That would be Alice Nelson, who is also the senator’s legislative assistant. Crazy, perhaps, because Nelson and Eastern Oregon farmers, irrigators and others have tried unsuccessfully for years to get more water from the Columbia, which is tightly regulated by state and federal rules regarding endangered species, tribal rights, hydro flows and a myriad of other interests.

Nelson is eternally convinced that there’s plenty of extra water in the river, and it’s the way Oregon can climb out of its budget hole. He doesn’t seem to mind beating his head against the wall on this idea. He’s semi-famous for calling the Columbia’s water Oregon’s “oil,” and believes that Oregon could sell its water to parched states such as California for big bucks. “You want to raise some money for education and all the other things? We’re going to have to start looking at our natural resources,” Nelson says. “I’m not saying how or when we should use it.” Nelson says this bill simply restates reserving 30 million acre feet of water that was approved 20 years ago by the Oregon Water Resources Commission and later overruled by the state’s attorney general.

But there is never anything simple about water rights in Oregon, where battles between factions — cities, agriculture, farmers, fish, recreation — are as old as the state itself. Oregon also is one of the few states without a comprehensive water management plan.

Expansion of Columbia River water rights has been attempted several times in the past few years. There was the epic fight in the 2007 Legislature over the so-called Oasis bill, which asked for 500,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Upper Columbia for irrigation and farming use. And Nelson got the Senate Republicans to take up the fight again in 2008.

Nelson admits that his latest effort, SB 1012, is getting no love from the environmental groups who have opposed the earlier efforts, and that Portland Democrat Sen. Jackie Dingfelder, chair of the Senate Environment & Natural Resources Committee, “is not real pleased with it.” He says since he believes this is a possible revenue-generating idea, he’s asking the senate president to refer it to the finance committee.

John DeVoe, executive director of the environmental group WaterWatch and staunch opponent of the previous water efforts, dismisses Nelson’s assessment that Oregon could profit from selling its water. “There is no market at the costs involved for infrastructure and transmission, much less adding supposed ‘profits’ for Oregon on sales,” DeVoe says. “Annual power costs alone to move the amounts of water Nelson has discussed are in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He has discussed a penny profit per gallon. That causes an acre foot of water to start at a cost of $3,258, putting aside the huge infrastructure and power costs. This is about 100 times what farmers pay for water in parts of Southern California. Why would a buyer pay that when Central Valley Project water can be conserved in the range of $150/AF? Desalination is also much cheaper. I could be missing something, but from where I sit, this idea just makes no economic sense for the purported buyers.”

With even your wife questioning your sanity, why saddle up the old horse, don the armor and ride again? “I’m trying to keep the issue on the burner,” Nelson says, adding that he’s been talking to tribes, educators, farmers and others, trying to get them on board. But he is likely to be tilting at windmills again with Gov. Ted Kulongoski still in the chair and Democrats controlling both House and Senate. Kulongoski in the 2007 session threatened to veto the Oasis bill had it made it as far as his desk. It didn’t.

“Maybe the next governor will say there is something to this,” the ever-hopeful Nelson says. “But we need to have this water. I still believe that in the end we have to figure out how to get more money to pay for public services.”

As this month’s special session gears up, his opponents again will beg to differ. “Nelson's current bill strikes me as just another effort to circumvent rules protecting fish in the Columbia, Oregon's water availability determinations and reserve water for storage projects,” says DeVoe.

Like we said. It just isn’t a legislative session without a good water fight.

Robin Doussard is Editor of Oregon Business.

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