Four water projects have won nearly $2.5 million in grant funding from the Oregon Water Resources Commission while 10 other proposals seeking $9.8 million were rejected.
The 2019 grants mark the fourth cycle of funding from Oregon’s water supply development fund and also the lowest total amount awarded since the program was enacted.
The commission awarded $8.9 million to nine applicants in 2016, $6.3 million to four applicants in 2017 and $6.3 million to eight applicants in 2018.
Oregon’s water supply development fund currently contains more than $10 million and another $15 million was authorized by lawmakers during the most recent legislative session.
The relatively modest field of proposals and low number of projects recommended for funding raised some questions about the selection process during the commission’s Nov. 21 meeting in Salem.
“That’s not a lot of applicants for the type of money we’re talking about,” said Joe Moll, commissioner and executive director of the McKenzie River Trust.
Proposals are scored by a “technical review team” of experts who evaluate them based on their economic, environmental and social benefits to the public.
Staff members from the Oregon Water Resources Department then make funding recommendations to the commission, which makes the final decision.
Project applicants will generally have a “primary driver” for applying for the water grants but then need to package their proposals in a way that boosts their rankings in other categories, which is “awkward,” Moll said.
Bob Baumgartner, commissioner and manager at the Clean Water Services agency, said the process should be refined to encourage more desirable projects while providing more predictability for applicants without scaring them off.
“We can’t expect all projects to score high in all three areas,” said Eric Quaempts, commissioner and natural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Moll also said he’s concerned that high-scoring small-scale projects that affect a handful of farmers may outcompete proposals with medium scores but that help potentially hundreds of growers.
“That should somehow play into our decision, but it sounds like it doesn’t,” he said.
The commissioners said their comments shouldn’t be taken as criticism of the department’s administration of the grant program, but rather as thoughts on how it could be improved.
Following are the four projects awarded funding this year:
• More than $980,000 was approved for a project that would install a bypass channel for fish around the Upper Phillips Dam in Jackson County while piping nearly two miles of irrigation ditch.
• About $155,000 was approved for the conversion of about 80 acres in Douglas County from hand-line irrigation to a drip system, allowing the farm operation to switch from hay and cattle to higher-value crops.
Conserved water would be dedicated to in-stream flows in Calapooya Creek to benefit federally protected steelhead, trout and salmon, while the property would operate as a demonstration farm for local high school FFA students.
• More than $670,000 was approved for the completion of a second deep water irrigation well in Wasco County that’s intended to relieve pressure on the shallower aquifer to the benefit of junior water rights holders.
The project is also expected to stabilize groundwater levels and potentially improve flows in Mosier Creek.
• About $660,000 was approved for a relocation of the City of Chiloquin’s water supply well in Klamath County, which aims to boost surface flows in the Williamson River. The funding would also pay for new water meters that better monitor usage and help reduce waste.