Martha Pagel, former director of the Oregon Water Resources Department and a respected water law attorney, has died of cancer at the age of 65.

Nicknamed the “water queen,” Pagel was considered a highly capable administrator of the agency that she led from 1992 to 2000 and a ferocious advocate for irrigators as a private lawyer.

“Martha was among the best, if not the best,” said state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. “She was on the side of the farmers, on the side of irrigators, of people trying to make a wise use of the resource.”

At the time Pagel took the helm at OWRD, the agency was facing a major backlog of water rights permit applications, said Tom Byler, the department’s current director.

“It was a real mess for the agency at the time,” he said.

Pagel was instrumental in convincing lawmakers to commit funding to eliminate the backlog as well as implementing changes to the review process that prevented another backlog from building up in the future, he said.

At the time, it was still unusual to see a female director of a state agency but Pagel nonetheless “thrived in that world,” said Byler, who worked for her at OWRD and considered her a mentor.

“She was a great person to learn from,” he said.

Pagel ran the agency with “common sense and even-handedness” before entering private practice as an attorney with the Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt law firm in 2000, said Johnson.

With her knowledge of “esoteric” areas of water law and her inside experience heading OWRD — and previously the Department of State Lands — Pagel was a skilled “champion” for agricultural water users, she said.

“It was pretty hard to fool her,” Johnson said.

A graduate of Willamette University’s law school in Salem, Ore., Pagel also worked in the natural resources section of Oregon’s Department of Justice and as a natural resources adviser to Gov. Barbara Roberts.

As an attorney in private practice, Pagel was known for bringing people together to find a path forward as an “ultimate dealmaker,” said Elizabeth Howard, her colleague at the law firm.

In recent years, Pagel successfully argued for pending water rights applications to remain viable in Oregon’s Harney Basin even as new drilling was otherwise being shut down by regulators, Howard said.

She also helped fight off a proposal in the Legislature to require more extensive water measuring by irrigators by explaining why the timing was wrong for such a policy, Howard said.

“She was involved in water issues anywhere in the state there was an issue,” Howard said. “She just knew how the agencies worked.” 

Rick Glick, a water law attorney who worked on opposing sides of legal cases from Pagel as well as alongside her on others, said she aimed for amiable resolutions and didn’t take “hard positions” for their own sake.

“She had a very practical sense and good judgment on how to approach a problem,” Glick said.

Pagel is survived by her husband, Vic Pagel. No funeral service will be held at her request.

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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