Sen.Whitsett worried about water

By Sen. Doug Whitsett (D 28)

For the Independent

The creation of an Oregon Integrated Water Resources Strategy (IWRS) was authorized by HB 3369 enacted by the 2009 Legislature. The law requires the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) to design a strategy to meet Oregon’s future in-stream and out-of-stream water needs including programs for the development and enlargement of the water resources of the state.

The Strategy essentially elevates the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to co-equal status with the OWRD in determining what constitutes the best public benefits for the use of the waters of the state. It also requires the OWRD to consult with a variety of other state and federal agencies in making water use decisions. The law appears to reverse the provisions of current Oregon water law that were carefully crafted by previous Legislatures to delegate the management of the waters of the state to a single agency that has authority to smoothly and efficiently make and implement water use decisions.

I strongly opposed several provisions of HB 3369 because I believed they would be particularly detrimental to Eastern and Southern Oregon irrigated agriculture. Only about ten percent of Oregon water is diverted for agricultural and other uses. That small amount of water is essential for our agricultural economies.

In fact, compared to the total volume of Oregon water diverted out-of-stream for agricultural and other uses, about twice that volume of water is currently legally protected in-stream, Unfortunately, the new law appears to contain provisions that encourage the further reallocation of water to in-stream use without providing meaningful pathways to create additional water storage. The net result will almost certainly be the further loss of water for irrigation.

The OWRD has been working on the development of the IWRS for the past three years. The final draft of that IWRS document will soon be available for the public to study and evaluate. OWRD Director Phil Ward made a presentation of that final draft to the Klamath County Commissioner’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee last month. Director Ward’s discussion of the document and answers to committee questions did not serve to alleviate my concerns.

I believe that the IWRS as presented is more of a policy statement than a strategy to develop and enlarge Oregon’s water resources. Emphasis appears to be placed on water conservation and efficient use rather than on enhancing water supply through additional storage. The policy appears to be heavily weighted toward the designation of more water for ecological uses such as enhanced in-stream flows to improve aquatic habitat for fish and other aquatic species.

Particularly troubling is the apparent promotion of enhanced winter flows. These high seasonal flows are alleged to improve stream morphology and aquatic habitats. However, capturing and storing peak winter and spring flows are essential to developing additional water storage in Eastern and Southern Oregon. Either the water is to be stored or it is to be run down stream. We cannot have it both ways.

An eighteen member citizen committee was appointed to advise the OWRD on the development of the water strategy. Two Klamath county ranchers were members of that committee and I am convinced that they worked long and hard advocating for a more balanced outcome for irrigated agriculture. However, it appears that the preponderance of the eighteen member IWRS advisory committee favors the expansion of the reallocation of water for ecological uses including enhanced in-stream flows. They appear to have placed little emphasis on the development of additional storage for current and expanded agricultural use. Implementation of those public policies can only serve to diminish the supply of water available for irrigation.

A local example may help to explain my concerns. Upper Klamath Lake has been the primary source of water storage for Klamath Project irrigation for the past century. The availability of that water stored for agricultural use has been severely challenged by federal actions during the past two decades. Those federal actions have reallocated much of that stored water to ecological uses that allegedly better serve the public interest.

Two federal Biological Opinions have created first-hand experience regarding the severe damage to agricultural production and property values that are caused by the reallocation of irrigation water for other uses. One Opinion requires enhanced down-stream flows in the Klamath River for the alleged benefit of the threatened Coho Salmon. The other Opinion requires the maintenance of certain water levels in Upper Klamath Lake for the alleged benefit of endangered species of sucker fish. In sum, water previously stored for irrigation has been reallocated to establish ecological river flows and peak lake levels. In an average water supply year, fully implementing the two Opinions requires most of the water previously used for the irrigation of the Klamath Project.

As currently presented, the Integrated Water Resources Strategy has the potential to provide the state of Oregon with the authority to make similar and equally damaging water reallocations. Those reallocations can only serve to reduce the availability of water for irrigation unless Oregon’s water resources are developed and enhanced through construction of additional storage capacity. The current trend to increase water allocated for in-stream flow and to enhance winter and spring flows for ecological purposes would appear to preclude most, if not all of that future ability to store additional water for irrigation.

We have experienced the economic and cultural damage caused by federal reallocation of water in the Upper Klamath Basin. My greatest concern is that state directed water reallocations could potentially threaten the availability of water for irrigation from existing reservoirs and streams all across Oregon.

 

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