In addition to budget, other issues await February session


Capital Press

SALEM -- Sen. Dave Nelson, R-Pendleton, wants to tap the Columbia River for economic development.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, wants to clarify boaters' rights to float the state's waters.

And Rep. Suzanne VanOrman, D-Hood River, wants to allow non-utilities to pull renewable energy credits from the state's waters.

Oregon lawmakers will be talking water when they gather in Salem beginning Feb. 1 for a one-month supplemental legislative session.

Nelson's bill, known as Legislative Concept 14, is the most ambitious of several water bills expected to surface during the session. In it, Nelson seeks to reserve as much as 30 million acre-feet of Columbia River water for everything from agriculture to municipal needs.

He's even thinking of selling the water to California for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The ambitious bill stems from an attempt by the Oregon Water Resources Commission 20 years ago to reserve Columbia River water for use in Oregon.

The state's attorney general later ruled the commission overstepped its authority and threw out the water reservation.

State water law since has changed, however. The commission now has authority to establish water reservations, said Tom Paul, deputy director of the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The state has been reluctant to pursue additional withdrawals in recent years, according to Umatilla Electric lobbyist Cindy Finlayson, in part because of a moratorium between Oregon and Washington on new water rights in the Columbia and efforts to protect endangered salmon runs.

But, Finlayson said, Washington has continued to aggressively pursue the river's water.

"Oregon needs to step up and say this amount is ours," Finlayson said.

"Columbia River water is Oregon's oil," Nelson said, "and we're not taking any advantage of it: And it's to the detriment of our education and other services."

Just how much water the state should reserve is negotiable, Nelson said.

"This is an education process," he said. "We need to get the discussion going."

Oregon lawmakers also over the next month will be asked to clarify the rights and responsibilities of boaters who float the state's waters.

Under Legislative Concept 48, sponsored by Bates, boaters would have the right to float a "Class 1 waterway for recreational use between the lines of ordinary high water."

Any waterway that is floatable or tidally influenced is classified under the bill as a Class 1 waterway.

The bill does not attempt to affect the ownership of lands. It clears landowners of certain liabilities. And it stipulates that landowners don't "unreasonably interfere with persons making recreational use" of the waterway.

Lawmakers also will consider a bill that would help generate revenue for non-utility-owned, low-impact hydropower projects built before 1995.

Legislative Concept 109 would make the facilities eligible for renewable energy credits, providing a revenue source that irrigation districts and other entities could use to reinvest.

"All projects age and must be constantly maintained and improved to continue operation," said Steve Johnson, head of the Central Oregon Irrigation District.

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