Oregon’s Molalla and Chetco rivers are one step closer to state designations as scenic waterways, which could limit new water rights and restrict land uses along their shores.
The Oregon Water Resources Commission voted on Nov. 20 to recommend the scenic river designations to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, who is expected to make a decision in January 2016.
If Brown approves the designations, they can still be overturned by state lawmakers if they pass legislation reversing the actions.
Oregon hasn’t designated any new scenic rivers since 1988, but state agencies now plan to evaluate nominations on a regular basis, said Chris Havel, associate director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
The commission overseeing OPRD signed off on the scenic designations before they were referred to the Oregon Water Resources Commission.
If scenic designations for the Molalla and Chetco rivers are finalized, landowners would have to obtain permits from OPRD before logging, mining or building structures within a quarter-mile of their banks.
Only a portion of the rivers would be designated as scenic, however, and landowners can negotiate with OPRD about mitigating negative scenic impacts of the activity, Havel said.
If the agency isn’t able to reach an agreement with the landowner, it can delay the planned activity by a year, he said. Some jurisdictions, however, may refuse to issue necessary permits unless OPRD approves of the project.
The Grande Ronde River was also considered for a scenic designation, but OPRD rejected the idea due to limited public access and strong local opposition, Havel said.
Local landowners largely supported the designations for the Molalla and Chetco rivers, said Rachel Lovellford, a hydrologist for the Oregon Water Resources Department.
During its Nov. 20 meeting, the Oregon Water Resources Commission also approved annually protecting more than 1 million acre feet of water in the Chetco River and 300,000 acre feet in the Molalla River to ensure scenic flows.
The allocation for scenic flows doesn’t affect existing water rights, but could limit new water right permits within the designated area or upriver from it, Lovellford said.