Governor signs ‘starting point’ for water projects
A development fund recently created by the Oregon legislature is a “starting point” for new water projects, but environmental questions must be resolved before any money is released, supporters say.
The fund was created by Senate Bill 839, which Gov. John Kitzhaber signed during a ceremony on Sept. 16.
Lottery-backed bonds will provide the initial $10 million, but more dollars may be appropriated in the future if the fund is successful, supporters say.
“It definitely isn’t a complete picture of what the water needs are,” said Katie Fast, vice president of public policy at the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Grants and loans for water storage and other projects are expected to become available by 2015, but the Oregon Water Resources Department must first develop criteria to protect stream flows in affected waterways.
Environmental standards stalled a previous funding program created in 2009 because the requirements were seen as overly complicated, said Steven Shropshire, an attorney with the Jordan Ramis law firm who has tracked the issue.
Under the new bill, the stream flow protections are considered more flexible, but the rules implementing them must be written in a fairly short time frame, he said.
Another question is whether storage projects funded by the program will be economically viable, because 25 percent of the stored water must be dedicated to in-stream use, said Fast.
A storage project would need to be affordable for people to take out a loan from the fund to build it, she said.
Apart from the cost and environmental rules, many potential dam sites are too populated or otherwise unsuitable for construction, said Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who supported the bill.
“Finding locations for big storage is a challenge,” he said.
However, sites that can accommodate modest water storage do exist, and the fund isn’t limited to storage projects — improved efficiency is another goal of the bill, said Bentz.
“It’s not perfect by any stretch, but I think people understand it’s a good start,” he said of the legislation.
The bill is promising in that Oregon lawmakers have recognized the need for improving the state’s water systems, Bentz said.
If the initial $10 million is seen as being spent wisely, there will be a stronger case for lawmakers to expand the fund, he said.
The fund is an encouraging sign that legislators are thinking of improving water system more holistically, rather than in a piecemeal fashion, said Fast.