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.

Turmoil over Oregon climate legislation that’s shut down proceedings in the state Senate has also cast doubt on the prospects of several bills that impact agriculture.

While these bills aren’t nearly as controversial as the House Bill 2020 “cap-and-trade” proposal, they’d also be extinguished without a Senate vote before the Legislature’s June 30 constitutional deadline for adjournment.

“It’s uncharted territory,” said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Even if Senate Republicans return to the Capitol before the legislative session ends, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will have time to take action on all the bills that remain pending.

Bills that aren’t passed in 2019 would need to be reintroduced during a future legislative session in which they’d again face the uncertainty of winning the approval of policy or budget committees.

“Those bills lose momentum when they have to be reintroduced,” said Katie Fast, executive director of the Oregonians for Food and Shelter agribusiness group.

If the Legislature does convene in a special session after June 30, it’s likely lawmakers would focus on the budget and other high-priority items, Fast said.

“I wouldn’t expect these policy bills to come to the table unless they were part of some negotiated deal moving forward,” she said.

Though any unfinished business could be taken up during the short legislative session next year or farther out, changed circumstances can impede them from making headway again in the future.

“It certainly helps if something was already negotiated and had bipartisan support,” said Cooper.

Following are some of the farm-related bills that remain in limbo as the end of session draws near:

• Streamlined ditch cleaning. Up to 3,000 cubic yards of sediment could be removed per mile of drainage ditch over five years without a state fill-removal permit under House Bill 2437, compared to the current limit of 50 cubic yards per year.

The bill is supported by the Oregon Farm Bureau, which aims to create a less bureaucratically burdensome method for growers to conduct ditch maintenance. Ditch-cleaning could only occur during the dry season and would require prior notification to state agencies for review under HB 2437.

The proposal passed the House 42-17 despite a $700,000 price tag for state oversight of the program and objections from environmental groups, which claimed the bill lacks enough protections for fish and wetlands.

• Canola production limit. Farmers would be limited to producing 500 acres of canola per year in the Willamette Valley under Senate Bill 885, extending a cap that lawmakers enacted in 2013.

Critics of the 500-acre limit, who see canola as a valuable rotation crop, would prefer to let the current system sunset and have the Oregon Department of Agriculture establish rules for cultivation.

Specialty seed producers, who worry about cross-pollination with related crops, claimed that extending the 500-acre limit until 2024 would provide certainty and prevent seed buyers from abandoning the region.

The bill has cleared the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources as well as the Joint Committee on Ways and Means but has yet to be voted on by the full Senate.

• Eastern Oregon farmland rezone. Up to 200 acres of farmland per county in the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Region could be rezoned for rural residential development under House Bill 2456, which passed the House, 37-20, and is under consideration by the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee.

Proponents argue the bill contains protection for farmland, such as excluding high-quality soils from conversion to residential use, while critics claim it would set a bad precedent for other areas that want to circumvent Oregon’s land use system to spur development and property tax revenues.

• Solar development. County governments would have the authority under House Bill 2329 to approve solar developments ranging from 160 to 1,920 acres, depending on agricultural value, up from the current limits of 100 to 320 acres. Solar projects above those thresholds come under the jurisdiction of the statewide Energy Facility Siting Council.

Advocates of increasing solar energy production claim the county approval process is less expensive and time-consuming than going through EFSC, while opponents of the bill argue that county governments lack the resources to fully vet such large projects.

The bill passed the House, 52-7, and is awaiting action in the Senate.

• Hemp commission. The surge of hemp cultivation in Oregon — where production has grown from 100 acres to 50,000 acres in five years — spurred the idea of creating a crop commission to raise money for research and promotion.

A proposal to establish an industrial hemp commission died in committee in 2017 but appeared to gain traction this year with the passage of House Bill 2740 through the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use. The proposal is awaiting action in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

• Egg production. A compromise between egg producers and animal advocates yielded Senate Bill 1019, which sets standards for mandatory cage-free egg production that are in line with those in Washington and California.

Though SB 1019 didn’t encounter any opposition, it didn’t clear the Joint Committee on Ways and Means until mid-June and hasn’t yet been voted on by the full Senate.

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

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