By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- In a legislative hearing April 16, Oregon farmers and ranchers spoke out against a proposed water right management fee that could cost some farmers as much as $1,000 a year.
The new fee is inequitable, they said, unduly burdens farmers with the responsibility of funding the Oregon Water Resources Department, and provides no direct benefits for fee payers.
Others, however, said the annual water right management fee is equitable and needed to ensure that the department can adequately manage Oregon's water resources.
"A nominal $100 fee would allow Oregonians who use this public resource to help pay for the cost of managing the resource that they benefit from," said Teresa Huntsinger, a program manager for the Oregon Environmental Council.
Department Director Phil Ward said the fee will help the agency improve its distribution of water, improve field-response time and help the department develop better scientific data for decision-making.
He said the department has consistently lost staff over the past 14 years, declining from a high of 200 full-time-equivalent employees in 1999 to 159 today.
Much of the staff loss has been in its county field staff, which has declined from a high of 40 in 1999 to 15 today, Ward said.
Richard Whitman, natural resources policy adviser for Gov. John Kitzhaber, said rebuilding that field staff is vital to the future of rural Oregon.
"That (first-in-time, first-in-right) system only works if there is a field presence to make sure that those senior water rights are actually being allowed to be used in a way consistent with our property system," Whitman testified.
"It is key that we figure out a stable funding source for this activity long-term," he said.
"That is why the governor supported the department coming forward with this legislation. It is also why the governor supported increases in general fund resources for this department, as well," he said.
Senate Bill 217 would impose an annual fee of $100 on each water right and caps at $1,000 the amount any single water right holder would pay .
Keith Nantz, general manager and partner in Dillon Land and Cattle Co. in Maupin, Ore., told members of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee that he would be forced to pay the cap.
"This will impose a fee of $1,000 on my operation," Nantz said. "I currently hold 12 water rights.
"This is also in addition to almost $5,000 annually that I pay to my irrigation district for management fees and maintenance fees," he said.
Blaine Nofziger of Double N Hay Co. in Christmas Valley, Ore., told committee members the fee would be added on top of the more than $50,000 he paid last year in pumping costs to irrigate his fields.
"It is one more expense to add on to what we do," he said. "Prices are going up on everything we have to pay for.
"If water was seen as an income source by the Water Resources Department, that will make us suffer. It will have a big impact," he said.
David Baker, a Central Oregon farmer, said he has no ability to recoup the costs of the fee, given that he can't pass additional costs on to customers.
The fee will hurt his ability to provide for his family, he said, tax some farmers more than others, and, he said: "I can't see we are getting any additional service for the fee we are going to have to pay."
Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, echoed Baker's comments about the fee not leading to any direct services.
"It's not really like a normal fee, where you pay for a use, and you get something in return," Thomsen said.
He said the fee functions like a tax.
The committee scheduled a work session on the bill for April 17. It is not expected to vote on the bill until after press deadline.