Bill would loosen strings on Columbia water withdrawals

Capital Press Staff Writer


SALEM, Ore. – A striking black-and-white photo of Sen. Dave Nelson, R-Pendleton, viewing the Columbia River spilling out of McNary Dam is situated on the east wall of his Capitol office.

At first look, the river’s capacity to supply an area with water seems limitless. Many citizens of Nelson’s district, however, are powerless to tap the river’s vast capacity due to what farmers characterize as a moratorium on new water rights.

Nelson is trying to change that.

Senate Bill 820, introduced by Nelson last week, could open the Columbia River to new water rights and open the door to economic development for an area where water is everything.

“Water is king out here,” Nelson said. “If we don’t have water in our part of the country, our economy dries up.”

In addition to boosting the area’s economy, Nelson said, his bill would put minimum stream flow requirements more in line with current scientific opinions and would even out the playing field for Oregon growers, who can look across the river and see Washington growers tapping the Columbia River for irrigation.

Washington growers recently were awarded uninterrupted water rights after a Benton County, Wash., judge sent the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association and the state’s Department of Ecology into mediation in an attempt to settle a two-year legal struggle. The mediation resulted in the moratorium being lifted on new Columbia River main stem water rights in Washington.

“It’s frustrating for our guys to look right across the river and see that Washington is withdrawing water,” said Nelson, a third-generation wheat farmer.

The so-called moratorium on Columbia River water rights in Oregon dates back to 1994, when the state’s Water Resources Commission decided to bring Oregon’s usage of the Columbia in line with the Northwest Power Planning Council’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s policy of “no net loss of flow.”

In meeting those goals, the state developed what it calls Division 33 rules – rules that have made it nearly impossible to obtain new water rights on the main stem Columbia.

Although the state won’t call the current situation a moratorium, growers and others interested in using the river argue that it is. Since 1994, the state has issued only five new surface water rights for the main stem Columbia and two reservoir water rights, which were awarded to benefit wildlife. Only two of the rights were issued for irrigation purposes.

To date, Oregon diverts approximately 0.3 percent of the average annual flow of the Columbia River, while Idaho diverts 2.7 percent and Washington diverts 4 percent.

SB 820 would allow Oregon users to tap an additional 1 percent, or 2 million acre feet, of the river’s annual flow above Bonneville Dam for municipal, irrigation and industrial purposes. The bill limits how much any one individual can withdraw and establishes a water withdrawal fee.

Advances in irrigation technology will enable growers to dramatically expand irrigated acreage with only a small amount of additional water, Nelson said.

“We have about 200,000 acres under irrigation now in this area, and you could double that, maybe triple it, and still use less than 1 percent of the water coming down the river,” Nelson said.

Nelson said SB 820 would still leave plenty of water in the river to meet the minimum target flows that recently have been advanced by the scientific community for salmon protection.

WaterWatch of Oregon, an environmental organization that works to protect fish, disagrees, however, and is concerned that the underlying issue being tested here is who is getting more water, Oregon or Washington.

“That is not the question that we should be asking,” Karen Russell, interim executive director of the organization, wrote in testimony during a work session before the Senate Committee on Transportation and Economic Development Feb. 5. “The last thing our state needs is to engage in a race to the bottom with our neighbor to the north by embarking on a major new water development program.”

“This would give people carte blanche to pull water out of the river that salmon need,” said Kimberley Priestley, assistant director of WaterWatch. “NOAA’s target flows already are not being met, and this will only make things worse.”

Proponents of the bill argue that the target flows in use today were established in 1992 and scientific opinion on flow requirements has changed since then.

“The new numbers show no direct connection between fish survival and those target flows,” said Darryll Olsen, a water-law expert who helped negotiate the recent settlement in Washington.

Nelson said he considered advancing a bill similar to SB 820 in the past session, but didn’t because he was convinced former Gov. John Kitzhaber would have vetoed the bill. He believes Gov. Ted Kulongoski will support it.

“Our governor has put forth a strong message that we need economic development and jobs to get our economy going,” Nelson said, “and this bill will accomplish both goals.”

Especially in a region where water is king.


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