Ditch legislation

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

Opposition from multiple environmental groups has failed to stop the Oregon House from approving a bill aimed at simplifying the state’s ditch-cleaning regulations.

Farmers could remove up to 3,000 cubic yards of sediment per mile of ditch over five years after notifying state regulators under House Bill 2437, which passed the House 42-17 on June 17.

Currently, a state fill-removal permit is necessary to clean more than 50 cubic yards a year from a ditch, which is considered an expensive and time-consuming bureaucratic hurdle for many farmers.

“Right now, we have a process that’s not being used, and that process has caused us not to really know what is happening on our working lands,” said Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro.

Nearly $700,000 would be appropriated for state agencies to oversee the new program and for Oregon State University to study its effects over the next two years.

Ditches could only be cleaned during the dry season, notifications would be reviewed by wildlife regulators and the streamlined regulations wouldn’t apply to essential salmon habitat, among other provisions.

Despite these limitations, the bill recently came under fire from 23 environmental organizations that wrote a letter complaining it would place “Oregon’s wetlands and streams at serious risk.”

The groups — including Waterwatch of Oregon, Center for Biological Diversity and Oregon Wild — complain the bill doesn’t provide for public notice and comment about planned ditch-cleaning projects.

Opponents also claim the increased limit on sediment removal is excessive and will damage channelized streams while the dredged material will be deposited onto sensitive wetlands.

Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, said the money allocated to the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will amount to less than one full-time position each, which is inadequate.

“We currently have a system that’s designed to fail, nobody disputes that, but we’re proposing a system that’s equally set up to fail through under-funding,” he said.

Oregon’s existing fill-removal permits also serve as a “shield” against the Trump administration’s “rollback” of Clean Water Act restrictions at the federal level, with more than half of U.S. wetlands set to lose protections under a proposed rule change, Wilde said.

Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, said it’s unfortunate that partisan politics at the national level were being used to attack a bipartisan state bill, characterizing the criticisms as false and misleading.

He distinguished between “environmental for-profit non-profits” that oppose HB 2437 and the Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited, which are conservation groups that helped reach a compromise on the bill.

“They chose collaboration over litigation,” Brock Smith said.

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

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