Water, Water Everywhere: Coming Soon to a Legislative Chamber Near You

Water Law

2/3/2017 by Janet Neuman

Water, Water Everywhere: Coming Soon to a Legislative Chamber Near You
Water is a real estate issue, a business issue, a taxpayer issue. Whether you're a developer, a farmer, a city manager, a manufacturer, or "just" a taxpayer, I think you’ll be hearing a lot more about water in the next few months.
Last summer, The Oregonian ran an excellent, in-depth series of four feature articles about water. That, in itself, is news since water issues rarely make the front page in the metro area. Boiled down to its essence, the series demonstrated that Oregon's water management system is out of balance, particularly when it comes to groundwater. The state doesn't have sufficient data about Oregon's groundwater resources to assess the impact of new requests to pump, but the default response has been to issue permits anyway. Nor does the state uniformly require water users to measure and report their use. As a result, several areas in the state are seriously overcommitted—with more water rights granted than there is water to supply them. Rural communities, the state's economy, and our cherished water-dependent ecosystems are already suffering real consequences.
What's the problem? Money and politics, according to the reporters, and they are absolutely right. The Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) has been chronically underfunded for decades—particularly for groundwater studies, measurement programs, and other items that don't directly relate to processing and issuing applications. All of the natural resources agencies together share a 2% slice of the general fund pie, and OWRD gets a tenth of that tiny slice. Meanwhile, water users, constituents, and politicians pressure the agency to keep issuing more water rights.
In December, the Secretary of State's Office published an audit report of OWRD that added insult to injury, because it wasn't limited to groundwater, but criticized water management across the board. The audit found that the agency does not have enough staff, funding, or information to do its job properly, nor does it have clear priorities and a plan to address the deficiencies and move forward. 
That brings me back to money and politics. The Department clearly needs more funding for research, planning, data analysis, measurement, and enforcement. Already, one legislator has proposed legislation to address some of these issues in the upcoming legislative session. Rep. Ken Helm submitted bills proposing additional groundwater research funding, additional measuring of water use, and a small fee on all water rights holders to fund water management activities. As the Chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee, Helm can be sure his bills get heard. However, as a metro area Democrat, he will need to find lots of support, from rural and urban Ds and Rs, and from agricultural interests to conservation groups, to make anything happen.  
I wish him well in that effort. Although the legislature has lots of big issues on its plate this session, water should be one of them.