By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- A proposal to establish a new water-rights management fee fell flat this legislative session, but a second water fee bill, this one to increase existing fees, is faring better.
House Bill 2259 was moved recently with a do-pass recommendation from the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee to the joint Ways and Means Committee, where it currently sits.
As amended, the bill will give the department authority to increase water transaction fees as much as 2 percent annually, retroactive to 2009.
The fee increases are aimed at satisfying a 2009 legislatve policy directive for the department to generate half its revenue from fees and half from the general fund.
Currently the department generates about 60 percent of its revenue from the general fund and 40 percent from fees, according to the department.
Adding urgency to the issue, the existing fee schedule is set to sunset on July 1 and fees would revert to pre-2009 levels.
Speaking recently before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Richard Whitman, Gov. John Kitzhaber's natural resources policy advisor, characterized HB2259 as "critical for the (OWRD's) budget in this (2013-15) biennium."
The bill is backed by a consortium of environmental and farm interests, including the Oregon Environmental Council, the Oregon Association of Nurseries and the Oregon Water Resources Congress, which represents irrigation districts.
"For nurseries, we recognize that a water resources department that has adequate funding will help us with water transfers, water certificates and a variety of different services that we need in order to do our business," said Jeff Stone, executive director of the nursery association.
Without legislative action, department administrators said they will need to cut OWRD's water permitting staff from 32 to 24 full-time-equivalent positions.
"At that level, I think that anything the nursery industry would need from the department, if it was an extension of a water right or any number of things, that the line would get longer, the responsiveness would be less," Stone said.
"If we're trying to move a water right or transfer it over to a different area, we need to have a department that is able to respond and do it in a timely manner," he said.
While nurseries and irrigation districts support the bill, other natural resource organizations are in opposition to what they see as a continued push by the department to raise fees.
Oregon Cattlemen's Association lobbyist Jim Welsh said cattlemen support leaving fees at current levels.
Similarly, the agricultural water rights organization Water For Life opposes the bill and would like to see fees left at the current schedule.
Richard Kosesan, who lobbies for Water For Life, said the department raised fees substantially in 2007 and 2009. Another fee increase, he said, will place a significant burden on water users.
"The reality is, the Water Resources Department's fee revenues have increase approximately 75 percent between the 2001-03 biennium and the 2011-13 biennium," Kosesan said.
Given an improved economy and a corresponding improvement in fee revenue, the existing fee schedule should be adequate to meet the department's needs, he said.
"If in fact the fee revenue anticipated (in 2009 fee-increase legislation) would be actually generated, the department without a fee increase would realize well over $700,000 in additional fees from the existing fee schedule," Kosesan said.
"I believe it would be prudent to extend the sunset for two or four years and find out what the experience is with the realization of the increased generation of fee revenue," he sad.
As of press deadline, no hearing was scheduled on the bill.