Several farm groups have filed protests against the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s proposal to obtain instream water rights in the Hood River Basin.
Fourteen of the agency’s applications for instream water rights, which are meant to protect flows, were met with objections from the Oregon Farm Bureau, Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers, local irrigation districts and county Farm Bureaus.
The Oregon Water Resources Department had proposed approving the applications, but the protesters argue the agency wrongly determined the instream water rights served the public interest.
Farmers are concerned that new ODFW-owned instream water rights could prevent the development of irrigation water rights under the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s 83,000 acre-feet of “water reservations” in the basin, said Mary Anne Cooper, public policy counsel for Oregon Farm Bureau.
“We’re not clear on how they stack up with these instream water rights,” Cooper said.
When Oregon lawmakers passed a law to protect instream flows 30 years ago, they also allowed the Oregon Department of Agriculture to “reserve” water for economic development.
Last year, the Hood River Basin’s water reservations were renewed for another two decades, as they generally haven’t yet been used to develop water rights.
However, such water reservations may play an important role in storing irrigation water if the Hood River Basin sees lower future snowpack accumulations.
Another concern is that instream water rights may impede the transfer or lease of senior water rights, said Cooper.
New instream rights would be junior to those of existing water users, but Cooper said problems can arise when those irrigators want to move a point of diversion further upstream.
In such a situation, ODFW may claim injury because the water remains instream for a shorter distance, she said.
If water rights within Hood River Basin were canceled, the water would be “swallowed up” by the instream rights instead of becoming available to other irrigators, according to the protesters.
Conversations about these worries did not take place “on the front end,” before the agency sought new instream rights, which necessitated the protests, Cooper said.
“At that point, our only recourse was to file the protest,” she said.
Capital Press was unable to reach Anna Pakenham Stevenson, ODFW’s water program manager, for comment.
WaterWatch of Oregon, an environmental group, also lodged protests against four of the proposed instream rights in the basin.
Contrary to the irrigators, the organization complained the amount of water protected by instream rights would be insufficient to guarantee a healthy habitat for fish.
When a protest is filed, the Oregon Water Resources Department can still approve an instream water right or modify it, said Dwight French, administrator of the agency’s water right services division.
The other two options are to move forward with a contested case hearing or allow the parties to settle the case, he said.
If OWRD issues a final order after a contested case process, the decision can be challenged before the Oregon Water Resources Commission, which oversees the agency, and then the Oregon Court of Appeals, he said.