By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Farmers, ranchers and farm lobbyists have come out against a bill requiring the Oregon Water Resources Department to consider effects on wildlife and provide an opportunity for public comment when approving changes in water rights points of diversion.
Senate Bill 425 will slow the approval process, and could undermine a farmer's or rancher's ability to maximize a water right, farmers and ranchers said in a March 4 hearing before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
"As our streams have become fully appropriated, transfers are the only way that we can move water from field to field, from area to area in a way that is not impacting our neighbors and the resource," said Katie Fast, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.
"The ability to use transfers is critical to our ability to manage water and keep agriculture viable," Fast said.
Bill Hoyt, a rancher and legislative chair of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, said the bill could significantly affect his ability to operate.
"As a small producer, if I have a really hard winter, a lot of snowpack, and we get tremendous amount of runoff and my diversion point is severely eroded, I've got to make a change," Hoyt said.
"(Under this bill) if I am going to make a change, now I have to go through this entire process to get that done," Hoyt said.
Kimberley Priestley, senior policy analyst for WaterWatch of Oregon, said the bill is aimed at "a very narrow loophole" in Oregon water law. Under current law, she said, the department is not required to consider the effect a diversion point change could have on wildlife and native fish habitat.
"All we're trying to do is protect the status quo," Priestley said. "The intent of this bill is very, very narrow."
Tom Wolf of Trout Unlimited, also spoke in support of the bill. "I understand the needs of farms and ranches for water ... but I also realize the need of fish for water," Wolf said.
"Senate Bill 425 adds a new analysis to the injury test, and that is the public interest analysis," Wolf said.
"I believe that it is a very specific loophole that WaterWatch wants to close," Wolf said.
Others, however, said the bill has far-reaching effects and could substantially change Western water law.
"There are 11 separate statutory changes listed in this bill. That is not a simple bill," said April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress. "That is not closing a loophole, or maintaining a status quo. That is setting up an entire new regime."
Snell also said the bill will be costly for the Oregon Water Resources Department to regulate.
"We are concerned that in addition to impacting water users, that this would impact the department's duty to carry out their other statutory functions," Snell said.
The committee took no action on the bill.
Current law requires the department to consider injury to another water user before allowing a point of diversion change.