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Lawmakers say Columbia Water Debate Will Return

posted on March 9, 2012

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Farmers in Eastern Oregon couldn’t persuade the Legislature to take more water from the Columbia River, but proponents insist the issue will not go away and they are vowing to find ways to store winter rainwater to irrigate crops during dry summers.

Conservation groups worry that such a move would jeopardize the river’s water levels during salmon runs.

Republicans pushed aggressively to take more water from the river for agricultural use, but they couldn’t reach an agreement with Democratic leaders this year.

“We do believe that there’s some opportunity for further conversations around water,” Rep. Bruce Hanna, the Republican Co-Speaker, said this week.

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber has offered tepid support, saying he’s open to studying the concept.

Farmers complain that much of Oregon’s abundant winter rainfall flows into the Pacific, and they argue that some of it should be captured and stored to irrigate crops during warm and dry months. They hope additional water would extend the growing season or allow them to replace lower-margin crops like wheat with more profitable — but thirstier — fruits and vegetables.

“I think part of the challenge is, most folks think of Oregon — on the west side at least — as a place that rains a lot so we don’t have water-shortage issues,” said Katie Fast, a lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

The Republican-backed measure, House Bill 4101, would have directed state officials to aggressively pursue new water supplies through conservation, storage and reuse. More controversially, it also would’ve required them to “take all actions necessary and proper” to draw an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water for use in agriculture.

Key lawmakers and the governor’s office negotiated extensively on the measure, but Republicans said they gave up because the offerings from Democrats wouldn’t go far enough.

“We were asked to compromise to a point where we did not believe the bill actually accomplished its goal,” Rep. Matt Wingard, R-Wilsonville, said this week. “So we held our ground.”

Doug Moore, director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, said it was the bill’s proponents who were inflexible.

Conservation groups worry that the Republican bill would not have prevented Columbia water withdrawals during low-flow periods, when migrating salmon depend on having sufficient water in the river. They also say legislation isn’t needed, noting that Oregon already is using excess water to recharge an aquifer in Eastern Oregon.

“If they want to have a discussion about storing excess winter water, that’s a great conversation to have. Let’s have it,” Moore said. “But we can’t be just unilaterally making a decision and not having a discussion with everyone at the table.”

In 2006, Washington passed a bill that appropriated $200 million to improve water conservation, storage and water-use agreements in the Columbia River basin.

Some lawmakers in Oregon have proposed working with Washington to store excess winter water that could be released in summer for Oregon’s use. Republicans say that’s only a short-term solution and should not stop Oregon from building up its own storage infrastructure.

Tags: agriculture Columbia River conservation Oregon water