By MITCH LIES
SALEM -- A Senate committee has advanced a bill creating a water supply development fund, despite concerns that the bill requires applicants to meet what some consider unreasonably difficult conditions before they can tap the fund.
The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on April 17 moved Senate Bill 839 with a do-pass recommendation by a 4-1 vote, with only Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, voting against it.
The bill, which sets conditions and criteria for administering the fund, but provides no money, now heads to the legislative budget-writing panel, the joint Ways and Means Committee.
S839 stipulates the fund is available only to projects that provide social, environmental and economic benefits -- conditions that Olsen said are difficult to interpret and, potentially, too restrictive.
"(SB839) is a bill that probably will not be used by anyone," Olsen said. "It is difficult to interpret. It requires at least 25 percent of what you do to go in stream.
"This is another bill that needs work, and Ways and Means is not going to do the work that it should," Olsen said.
In an earlier hearing, the bill was supported by the Oregon Association of Nurseries, Oregon Water Resources Congress, the Oregon Environmental Council, League of Oregon Cities, Special Districts of Oregon, the Freshwater Trust and the Nature Conservancy.
"SB839 has the potential to truly move the dial for water management in Oregon," the groups said. "Meeting our water needs will require diverse, innovative projects and strategies, and SB839 has been carefully tailored to do just that."
Richard Whitman, natural resources policy advisor for Gov. John Kitzhaber, said the bill "is foundational to Oregon's long-term water resources development program."
"Oregon needs a fully functioning water resource development program for both agriculture and other uses," Whitman said in the April 17 work session, "and (SB)839 is the vehicle for that to occur."
Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Pendleton, voted for the bill will the proviso that he could change his vote on the Senate floor.
"While there are parts of it I really like ... there are some parts of it I find very problematic," Hansell said.
"I will not necessarily be an 'aye' vote on the floor," he said. "I will move it forward for further work, and hopefully that work will be done."
Among conditions SB839 requires applicants to meet to qualify for funding of above-ground storage projects, one requires 25 percent of the new water supply be used to enhance instream flows.
Conditions put forth in a similar fund established in House Bill 3369 in the 2009 Legislature have rendered that fund worthless, some said, and the fund has sat unused in recent years.
"If folks are not voting for (SB)839," Whitman said, "they need to understand that the alternative is using the existing funding mechanism in House Bill 3369, which has not been used for the last two years because of concerns about ambiguities in that program."
SB839 improves access to a water supply development fund by calling for the state to conduct and pay for studies to determine if a project meets certain environmental conditions, rather than the applicant, said Brenda Bateman, public information officer for the Oregon Water Resources Department.
Also, applicants seeking to access funding for below-ground storage projects have several methods to meet the environmental requirements called for in SB839, beyond simply leaving water instream, Bateman said.
Kitzhaber is proposing about $18 million go to water supply development projects in his recommended budget.