Proponents have backed away from a bill under which eminent domain could be used to protect drinking water that flows through private Oregon forestlands.
Instead, supporters of House Bill 2594 are endorsing an amended version that would heighten regulatory scrutiny of streams that serve as drinking water sources.
Under the original proposal, the Oregon Health Authority would use eminent domain to secure conservation easements that restrict activities affecting water on private property.
An amendment proposed by Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River, would replace her bill’s initial language with requirements that the Oregon Department of Forestry revisit and update rules for streams with domestic water uses.
The ODF would also create a process for water utilities to petition for stronger protections in their watersheds and consult with OHA and the Department of Environmental Quality to ensure domestic use streams are properly classified.
Steve Graeper, president of the Rhododendron Water Association, said he preferred the original “teeth” of HB 2594, which could have led to negotiations with landowners who currently have “zero incentive” to discuss water protections.
However, the ODF’s guidelines for assessing risks to drinking water are currently “seriously inadequate,” so the bill’s amended version at least offers the opportunity for improvement, Graeper said.
While stronger tools are needed for utilities to protect water sources, the amended version of HB 2594 is a “humble starting place” and “small step in the right direction” toward guarding against the “harmful effects of industrial logging practices,” said Samantha Krop, coalitions coordinator for the Forest Waters Coalition.
Communities have tried to work with ODF on the problem with little or no gain, so the agency should be held accountable regarding water protections even as lawmakers must consider taking further actions, she said.
Roughly half the forested watersheds that community water systems rely on are owned by private landowners who are subject to the state’s forest practices regulations, said Jon Souder, an Oregon State University forestry extension agent, speaking on behalf of himself.
In the past 35 years, the ODF hasn’t made substantive changes to how domestic use streams are designated and the agency doesn’t extend that classification to their tributaries, he said.
For these reasons, “it seems prudent and justified to revisit the regulations and procedures for protecting drinking water during forest operations,” Souder said.
The Oregon Forest & Industries Council, a timber organization, questioned the need for HB 2594 given existing regulations for drinking water overseen by the state’s DEQ.
Streams that exceed the DEQ’s maximum thresholds for sediment and other pollutants are already subject to regulatory action by ODF, said Mike Eliason, OFIC’s government affairs director.
The timber industry is already engaged in negotiations over forest regulations with environmental groups while the state government is considering a “habitat conservation plan” that would likely affect water quality, Eliason said.
“We want to see how that plays out, honestly,” he said.
Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, said the House Water Committee would “definitely” hold another hearing on HB 2594 in the future and invite the ODF to weigh in on the bill.