After late start, water fund begins to take shape
An early picture of Oregon’s water supply development fund began to take shape during the initial meeting of two task forces assigned to flesh out the program.
Last year, Oregon’s legislature approved a bill that made $10 million available for qualifying water projects.
Before the fund can become functional, however, two task forces appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber must make recommendations for its governance and how much water can be diverted and stored from a stream or river.
The task forces are off to a late start — their first joint meeting on Aug. 15 took place more than a month after their recommendations were due. The delay occurred because Kitzhaber did not name the task force members until recently.
The fund will likely fill funding gaps for projects that rely on multiple sources of capital, said Richard Whitman, Kitzhaber’s natural resources policy director.
“The funding needed for water resources development is far, far greater than the state is going to be able to provide in the near future, or quite frankly, ever,” he said. “Most of the money is going to come from the economic interests that will benefit from these projects.”
Water project developers should have an incentive to use the fund, so the process for obtaining funds can’t be too restrictive, as occurred with a similar program in the past, said April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress, which represents irrigation districts
Devising a method for how much water can be stored during winter — the “seasonal varying flows” standard — will be the most contentious point of the discussion, Snell said.
However, that difficulty should not stop the task forces from creating a functional way to allocate water and a system to prioritize projects, Snell said. “The idea is to get the cream of the crop funded with this very limited amount of money.”
The task force will ultimately decide on the “seasonally varying flows” standard, but a “subgroup” of specialists has already issued suggestions for how the water allocation method would work.
Under this proposal, up to 15 percent of streamflow could be diverted for storage during winter months. This percentage includes all existing projects on the stream or river, not just the one being built.
Also, diversions would stop once the streamflow falls below a “base” level needed to protect its ecological health.
If a developer intends to store more than 15 percent of streamflow, the project would have to undergo an “in-depth assessment” of the waterway’s hydrology, biology and other characteristics.
Snell said she’s concerned that aspects of the subgroup’s proposal deviate from the intent of the legislation that created the fund.
If an in-depth assessment is needed, the cost should be shouldered by the state fund and not the project developer, she said. “We can’t put that burden on the applicant, because they won’t do it.”
Another likely point of debate will be the requirement that a project must create economic, environmental and social benefits, said Whitman. “It’s not enough to have just an environmental benefit. It’s not enough to have just an economic benefit.”
Task force members must also figure out how to quantify the social benefits of a project, he said.
In some cases, the various benefits of a project will be aligned with each other, said Curtis Martin, a rancher and chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association’s water committee.
“It’s hard to have water habitat if you have a dry stream,” he said.