Senator questions fairness of water right fee proposal
By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, characterized a new water right management fee proposed by the Oregon Water Resources Department as unfair and inequitable.
"It is not a fair and equitable method," Thomsen said of the proposed $100 annual fee in a hearing on the department's budget March 27. "A lot of us are going to pay a lot more than others."
Thomsen said he stands to pay $700 a year for the seven water rights he holds on his Hood River Valley pear orchard.
"I don't see that it is fair and equitable," Thomsen said.
Further, Thomsen said farmers can't raise the price of goods and services to account for increased costs of doing business.
"When you go after farmers," he said, "farmers have no ability to raise the price of their apples or pears or wheat.
"It is all on a world-wide supply-and-demand basis," he said.
"We send our pears off to market," he said. "Wheat sends it off to a global market ... and we have no way to recoup these costs."
In the hearing before the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Natural Resources, on which Thomsen serves, Phil Ward, director of the OWRD, said seeking the fee was not a Water Resources Department decision.
"This (proposed) fee came from a three-year effort by the (Oregon) Water Resources Commission," Ward said, "because of the commission's concern ... that the department did not have the resources to manage Oregon's water resources in the way Oregon's water resources needed to be managed."
Ward said the commission looked at 30 different options and interviewed interest groups.
"A tremendous amount of thought went into this," he said, "and while nothing is perfect, the commission felt like this was as close as we could get in terms of a realistic proposal that might stand a possibility of enactment."
In discussing the budget with the subcommittee, Ward said only about 40 percent of the department's revenue currently comes from fees, well short of the 50 percent fee-based revenue the 2009 Legislature directed the department to seek.
The fee, proposed in Senate Bill 217, is capped at $1,000 for any individual agricultural water right holder, regardless of how many water rights an individual holds, Ward said. It does not apply to domestic wells or other exempt water uses.
Ward said most of the funds generated from the fee would be used to fund program start-up in this first biennium. After that, he said, the department expects to generate between $5 million and $6 million a year from the fee.
Ward said there are approximately 80,000 water rights in Oregon.
SB217 is in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. As of press deadline, no hearing has been scheduled.