Ag interests split over water fee increases
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Oregon farm interests are split on a bill to increase fees charged by the Oregon Water Resources Department.
In a committee hearing March 14, Oregon nurseries and irrigation districts voiced support for House Bill 2259, which increases several fees charged by the department, while Oregon dairy farmers and cattlemen opposed it.
The bill increases fees for everything from changing points of diversions to filing protests with the department. Some would jump dramatically: A base fee for appropriating water through a single point of diversion increases from $500 to $800 under the bill, as does a fee for a permit to store water.
The bill also provides for an annual increase of up to 3 percent.
Phil Ward, director of the department, said that without the fee increases, up to one-fourth of the department's 32-member transaction staff will be lost.
The staff processes water right applications and water right transfers, among other functions.
"This piece of legislation is critical to maintaining adequate service levels and avoiding new levels of backlog in the department," Ward said.
April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resouces Congress, which represents irrigation districts, also characterized the bill as a critical piece of legislation.
"While fees are never a fun topic, in this case, this is a very necessary bill," Snell said.
Speaking for the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, Roger Beyer opposed the bill.
"The dairy economics have not been good," Beyer said. "Any fee increases above where they are today is just unacceptable."
Jim Welsh of the Oregon Cattlemen's Asociation also spoke against the bill.
"We would like to see the general fund maintained closer to 70 percent supporting the mission of the Water Resources Department, and we would like to see the fee base be around 30 percent, not (as is current) over 40 percent," Welsh said.
Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, formed a work group to study whether a compromise can be reached.