By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Water users from across the state spoke out in favor of the Oregon Water Resources Department budget in a legislative hearing March 28, with one exception.
Farm groups were nearly universally opposed to a bill to create a new water rights management fee.
"In its current form (the fee) is not something we can support, because we feel it currently is inequitable," said April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress, which represents primarily irrigation districts. "It doesn't seem like it would bring in any actual revenue, at least in the near future."
In his testimony, Ian Tolleson of the Oregon Farm Bureau his organization also opposes the new fee.
And Jerry Schmidt of the Oregon Groundwater Association, said his members oppose all fee increases.
Several to testify said they also would like to see more general funds provided the department.
But, in general, water users praised the department's work and urged the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Natural Resources to fully fund the department at the level recommended in Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget.
"We believe that the welfare and future of our county is closely linked to the state's policy and to the Water Resources Department's budget," said Dennis Doherty, Umatilla County commissioner, who drove to the hearing from Hermiston.
He urged the subcommittee to fully support Kitzhaber's recommended funding level for the department.
"As our populations grow and our needs grow we need an agency that helps us maintain and manage the needs of the growth for water resources and the interests for all of the people," said Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope on behalf of the Association of Oregon Counties.
"I would urge that we continue looking at this proposed budget and support it. It's not a budget that we think is enough yet, but we would prefer to ... at least try to maintain where we are at today," Pope said.
In her testimony, Snell said she was encouraged to see that Kitzhaber increased general fund support for the department above 2011-13 levels in his recommended budget.
"We think this is modest but a very important step forward," Snell said.
Tolleson, too, said the Farm Bureau supports fully funding the department at the level proposed in Kitzhaber's budget.
"Water is the lifeblood of our economic prosperity," Tolleson said. "Water Resources Department's services and regulatory programs are essential to our community's success and the proper management of a critical resource."