Critics question need, direction of statewide effort

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

From concerns over the state misusing time and money to worries over the loss of water rights, complaints are surfacing over Oregon's integrated water resources strategy.

Some critics even question whether a need exists to create a long-term plan for addressing Oregon's future water needs.

"We have existing strategy contained within Oregon's 1909 Water Code," Curtis Martin, chairman of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's water resources committee, wrote in a letter to the state.

Martin said the association "is very concerned with Oregon Water Resources Department's project."

In a letter to the editor of the Capital Press, Martin also said the process is politically motivated and not the result of a "problem needing correction."

He said the process is distracting the department from a backlog of water-use permit applications.

Brenda Bateman, senior policy coordinator with the OWRD, said the state is "very sensitive" to most of Martin's concerns. But, she said, Martin is incorrect to label the strategy a political process.

"The department and the governor's office for a long time now have been working to get in place the funding, resources and support for long-term planning of an integrated water resources strategy," Bateman said.

Bateman said the Legislature provided the department with funding for two full-time positions to work on the strategy. The department is not shifting duties away from permitting, she said.

Also, Bateman said, officials hope the strategy will better equip the department to process permits in a more timely fashion.

Other water users are also leery of a strategy.

"There are potential benefits for agriculture in the strategy through an interest in water-storage development, but there also are potential pitfalls for agriculture," said Katie Fast, government affairs director for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Helen Moore of Water For Life said the water-user group is concerned on several levels.

"We believe that the department is going beyond what the legislation required," she said.

She also questions whether the ecological flow technical advisory committee is balanced.

"There is representation from an environmental organization, but no scientist from any water-user group," she said.

The committee includes a hydrologist from the Nature Conservancy. The committee was formed to define "peak and ecological flows," a phrase lawmakers included in a 2009 bill that allocated grant funds for water-storage project studies. Under the bill, grant applicants are required to address a project's impact on peak and ecological flows.

"Our concern is as they expand the use of those definitions, there will never be increased storage of water for out-of-stream uses," Moore said. "And there are a number of industries in this state that depend on the ability to use water."

Bateman countered that the committee's work will be peer-reviewed before it is adopted. And, she said, the state intends for the peak and ecological flow requirement to be considered only in regard to water-storage grant applicants.

"I can tell you from the multiple agencies involved and the governor's office that it is not the intent at all to remove or jeopardize water rights," Bateman said.

Ultimately, Fast said, "There is always potential when you're doing planning that it could have an impact on how water is managed.

"But hopefully, by staying involved, we can steer it in the right direction," Fast said.

Open houses set

The Oregon Water Resources Department is hosting six open houses in coming weeks on its Integrated Water Resources Strategy, beginning with three next week. Up next week are the following:

* May 11: Medford Library, 205 S. Central Ave., Medford.

* May 12: Oregon Institute of Technology, 3201 Campus Drive, Klamath Falls.

* May 13: Redmond Fire and Rescue, 341 NW Dogwood Ave., Redmond.

All meetings begin at 4 p.m.

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