Ditch regulations

Farmer John Scharf explains the drainage of tile lines from his fields near Amity, Ore., into a ditch. A compromise bill in the legislature will allow farmers to clean out ditches more easily.

A major bureaucratic obstacle to cleaning out Oregon drainage ditches would be reduced under a bill that’s overcome environmental objections to clear a key legislative committee.

Farmers are currently limited to removing 50 cubic yards from ditches in wetland areas without a fill-removal permit from Oregon’s Department of State lands, which critics say isn’t enough to keep the channels clear of sediment.

That amount would be increased to 3,000 cubic yards per mile of ditch under House Bill 2437, which the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use unanimously approved with a “do pass” recommendation on April 4.

Environmental groups testified against the original version of HB 2437 during a public hearing two months ago, citing possible unintended effects on ditches inhabited by fish. They’ve since been able to resolve those concerns during negotiations with bill proponents, resulting in multiple alterations to the bill.

Most significantly, the amended bill would exclude channels with “essential salmonid habitat” from the relaxed provisions and would require “more robust” review of proposed ditch-cleaning operations by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Jena Carter, Oregon coast and marine director for the Nature Conservancy.

The agency would examine ditch-cleaning notices filed by farmers to ensure that sediment removal won’t have adverse impacts on specific sites, she said. “Each property is so unique.”

Landowners who plan to clean ditches would file notices with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which the ODFW would then have 45 days to review, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Hopefully, the waiting period won’t be problematic for farmers if they file the notices in wintertime, well ahead of the time they’d clean out ditches, she said.

The requirements for removing sediment under the bill — such as ensuring the ditches are dry, minimizing erosion and promoting revegetation — are already comprehensive, Cooper said.

“We believe we’ve structured it to be very rare for any landowner to see any additional conditions from ODFW,” she said.

Although the sediment removal limits wouldn’t increase for “essential salmonid habitat,” that’s more likely to affect channels along the Oregon Coast that are wet year-round and thus wouldn’t benefit from the bill anyway, Cooper said.

The bill directs DSL to develop a “general permit” for cleaning out such channels, which would be less onerous to obtain than an individual fill-removal permit.

Though the proposal was unanimously approved by the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use, it’s not heading straight for a vote on the House floor. Instead, the proposal must first pass muster with the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, which makes budget decisions, due to its spending provisions.

Implementation of the program is expected to cost $550,000 due to the added workload for ODA, DSL and ODFW, and an Oregon State University study of ditch-cleaning is expected to cost $100,000, Cooper said.

The legislation emerged from a legislative work group headed by Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, and David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, who sit on the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use.

“It’s been 10 years of me hearing about conflicts between farmers and DSL and I did not think you would be this successful,” said Brian Clem, D-Salem, the committee’s chair.

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

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