After years of effort and several false starts, Oregon legislators did farmers in the Columbia Basin and elsewhere in the state a huge favor this session when they established a water supply development fund.
In the final weekend of the session, they passed Senate Bill 839, which will fund loans and grants for water storage and to plan projects.
Companion legislation, Senate Bill 5533, was also passed just before the final gavel fell. It deposits $10 million into that account from lottery-backed bonds.
Unfortunately, $10 million is only a drop in the bucket when compared to all of the water needs around Oregon. Besides the Columbia Basin in northeast Oregon, the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon has massive water problems. The Deschutes Basin near Bend is still another example. Even the Willamette Basin has pockets of irrigation water shortages.
Northeastern Oregon is farther along in its efforts to bring more irrigation water to farmers than the other areas thanks to a broad coalition that earlier this year signed a declaration of cooperation. Spearheaded by Gov. John Kitzhaber, who made getting more irrigation water to northeast Oregon a priority of his Oregon Solutions Project, the coalition agreed on the need for more water and the ability to provide it without compromising environmental values. Senate Bills 839 and 5533 are the direct result of that agreement.
Bringing water from the Columbia River to northeast Oregon is not a matter of turning on a spigot. It will likely take years of effort. Yet J.R. Cook, head of the newly created Umatilla Basin Water Commission, has remained confident of the bills' success because the potential benefits to the region are so great. Having more water to go around in Umatilla and Morrow counties could create hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity -- specifically farming, food processing and related industries -- in the region.
Toward the end of the legislative session, the water bills appeared to be stalled, but Reps. Greg Smith and Bob Jenson and Sen. Bill Hansell, with the help of a fellow eastern Oregonian, Rep. Cliff Bentz, resuscitated them and pushed them through to the governor.
Jenson said SB839 will stand as one of the most significant water bills to pass the Legislature in the last 50 years.
He may be right, but that's not saying much about Oregon's water history.
One look at the continuing water crisis gripping the Klamath Basin shows what could happen elsewhere in the state in the future without Senate Bills 839 and 5533.