Legislation that would affect the ability of Oregon water regulators to shut down irrigation wells is proving divisive in the farm industry.
Several bills — HB4044, HB4064 and SB1527 — would require the Oregon Water Resources Department to prove that individual wells are interfering with surface water rights before shutting them down.
Proponents of the bills claim that due to complicated hydrology, some wells can pump water without depleting nearby creeks and streams.
They say the OWRD shouldn’t be able to shut down wells based on regional models that aren’t precise as to the effect of individual wells.
Opponents of the bills, including groups that represent irrigators, fear they will impede the OWRD from protecting holders of senior water rights.
The legislation was inspired by water shortages in the Upper Klamath Basin, where the OWRD is planning to shut down more than 100 wells based on a regional computer model, proponents claim.
Erika Bentsen, a rancher in the area, said she had to sell half her cattle last year when drought prompted the agency shut off her surface irrigation rights.
In 2014, she faces losing the rest of her herd if OWRD prohibits her from using well water to irrigate, Bentsen said.
“I don’t have a choice. I will be forced out of business,” she said during a legislative hearing on Feb. 6.
The legislation would not stop the agency from shutting down irrigation wells if necessary — officials would simply need to prove each well is actually causing interference.
“If they think they have the science to back it up, what difference does it make to them?” Bentsen said.
Tom Mallams, a Klamath County commissioner, said that people in the U.S. are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty.
“This is an upside-down process,” Mallams said, noting that it would be impossible for a farmer or rancher to prove a well isn’t interfering with surface water.
Brent Cheyne, a board member of the Klamath Irrigation District, said the legislation merely calls for sound science.
The bills don’t actually change the law but clarify it to ensure the OWRD doesn’t overstep its authority, he said.
“This has the potential to mushroom out and affect every irrigation well in the state of Oregon,” Cheyne said.
However, it doesn’t appear that irrigators in the Klamath region are unified in their support of the legislation.
Mark Stuntebeck, manager of the Klamath Irrigation District, submitted a letter in opposition to the bills because they “will prevent OWRD from doing their job.”
Proving that each individual well affects surface water would require a major increase to the agency’s budget, Stuntebeck said.
“It requires unachievable scientific burdens put on the department, which would all but prevent its ability to regulate water in the Klamath Basin, if not the rest of the state,” he said.
The legislation would “upend” the current system of water law, under which senior water rights holders can cut off water from owners of junior rights, said Kirk Maag, attorney for the Oregon Water Resources Congress, an association of irrigation districts.
“In times of drought, someone has to bear the burden of the loss,” Maag said.
Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said his group opposes the bills as they’re currently written.
However, Stone said he hopes the legislation will “open the door” to a constructive discussion about how water is delivered to farms.
During the hearing, representatives of the Oregon Farm Bureau and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association voiced their support of the bills.