Water proponents split over annual fee proposal
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- At a recent ceremony in Portland, Sens. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, and Bill Hansell, R-Pendleton, stood side-by-side in a show of bipartisan support for a plan to tap Columbia River water for irrigation in a way that protects fish.
They might want to relish the moment. The two are lining up on opposite sides of a bill to establish a water right management fee.
In a press conference earlier this year, Dingfelder highlighted the fee as a priority this session as she seeks to wean the Oregon Water Resources Department off its dependence on general funds.
Senate Bill 217 would establish an annual fee of $100 per water right and cap the amount any one entity would pay at $1,000.
"This would ensure a stable funding, not just for the Water Resources Department," Dingfelder said, "but for our programs to properly manage our water supplies."
SB217 has been assigned to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which Dingfelder chairs.
Hansell, who is a member of the committee, said he believes the department should lean on general funds for its budget.
"My preference is to get more general fund money (for the department)," Hansell said. "My concern is if we start moving somebody to a fee-based operation, then the ability to maintain or increase general fund appropriations becomes less and less likely.
"I think it is going to be a real tough sell to start funding the department through fees," he said. "I would rather work on trying to keep them whole through the general fund budget, because (water use and protection) is a public good, a state responsibility."
In highlighting the fee at the Oregon Conservation Network press conference in February, Dingfelder said fees currently paid by water right holders are insufficient to cover the expense of managing the state's 85,000 water rights.
"Right now," she said, "the only fee you pay is when you do an actual transaction with the state, and that means, when you're applying for a water right, when you're transferring or perfecting a water right. And once you've done that, there is no fee. And we all know that water is more valuable than that."
Dingfelder said funds from the fees would be used "to properly manage Oregon's waterways, to ensure that field staff are in place to resolve conflicts between water rights holders" and to collect and analyze water data.
"We have been collecting data," she said, "but we don't have the staff to interpret it. So how do we know if we are managing our water systems wisely if we can't do the data analysis?"
Dingfelder said revenue from the fees also could be used to enhance groundwater monitoring in Oregon.
It appears Dingfelder, who has 12 years of experience as a state lawmaker, and Hansell, a freshman lawmaker with 30 years of experience as a county commissioner, do have some common ground. Both, for example, believe water is a key to economic development in Oregon.
"Water is the economic engine of this state," Dingfelder said. "If we don't have water, we can't manufacture, we can't grow crops, we can't provide important resources for our communities."
Hansell, likewise, said getting water for growers in his Senate district is one of his priorities this session.
"I am going to promote working on a program to use more of the Columbia River water, work on storage," he said. "We could be an oasis, we could be the Imperial Valley of California. We have the growing season. We have the land available, but it is in a low rainfall area. We've got to be able to irrigate."