By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- Oregon could move one step closer to obtaining new water supplies for irrigators and other water users if a Senate committee on April 16 votes to establish a water supply development fund.
Although Senate Bill 839 doesn't provide funding, it does establish the fund and it sets up eligibility criteria for projects.
Speaking in an April 10 hearing before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Richard Whitman, natural resources policy advisor for Gov. John Kitzhaber, said water supply development is "one of the most important issues facing the state of Oregon in terms of natural resource management over the next 10 years.
"If you want a new water right to farm some new ground or as a municipality, water is not available for appropriation in many parts of our state," Whitman said. "This is a serious economic-development issue.
"Oregon is behind our neighboring states in this arena," Whitman said.
"California has had a water resources development program for quite some period of time. Washington started a program more recently. Oregon has been slow," Whitman said.
"But I think there is a broad desire among a broad interest of stakeholders to address this issue," he said.
The fund established in SB839 could be used for loans, grants, to pay for projects directly or do preparatory work for water projects.
New above ground storage projects, below ground storage, water conservation, and other projects would be eligible to tap the fund.
Under the bill, eligible projects must provide economic benefits, social and cultural benefits and environmental benefits.
Whitman said he hopes the state devises a relatively simple application process for entities hoping to access the fund.
"The last thing we need is another program where the cost of obtaining public support is so high that nobody wants to use the program," he said.
The bill was backed by several groups in the hearing, including the Oregon Water Resources Congress, the Oregon Association of Nurseries, the Oregon Environmental Council, League of Oregon Cities, Special Districts of Oregon, the Freshwater Trust and the Nature Conservancy.
"SB 839 has the potential to truly move the dial for water management in Oregon," the above groups submitted as testimony. "Meeting our water needs will require diverse, innovative projects and strategies, and SB 839 has been carefully tailored to do just that. The future of water management in Oregon depends on taking steps now to encourage and fund instream and out of stream water supply development projects."
Kimberley Priestley of WaterWatch of Oregon, urged the committee to craft the bill so the qualifying criteria for water projects place more emphasis on environmental benefits.