April 17, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Whisnant working toward water deal
Apr 18, 2011
Whisnant working toward water dealBy Lauren Dake / The Bulletin
Published: April 17. 2011 4:00AM PST
SALEM — A page handed Rep. Gene Whisnant a handwritten note during a House floor session this week.
The Republican lawmaker from Sunriver unfolded the paper. It read, “Are we getting closer?”
The message was from Jim Myron, a lobbyist for WaterWatch, a nonprofit that aims to protect Oregon’s rivers, who was asking the lawmaker about a bill that would renew the program aimed at protecting the water flow in the Deschutes River.
Whisnant declared early on in the session that ensuring the bill passes would be his priority.
The Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program is set to expire in 2014. Whisnant wants to keep the program in place indefinitely. The goal of the program is to ensure that when water is pumped out of the basin, enough water is also being pumped back in to offset the use and maintain flows. Whisnant said the program is working. He maintains it’s protecting the river and giving locals the certainty they need to grow their businesses and continue developing.
But environmental advocates have concerns. For instance, they don’t want the bill approved without looking at the quality of water being pumped back in.
The program is based on a study showing that the basin’s ground and surface water are connected, so when groundwater levels go down, so do river levels.
Nearly halfway through the legislative session, are they getting closer to an agreement?
“What we have tentatively agreed to with Representative Whisnant is: We would support to remove the sunset as long as we had assurances that some of the unresolved issues over the program are adequately addressed over time,” Myron said.
But addressing the concerns, Whisnant said, would put a big price tag on the program, which would kill the bill.
“This has increased water flow in the Deschutes River three times over,” he said. “Without this, the river would be in worse shape.”
The Deschutes Water Mitigation Program started eight years ago when cities were facing a growth moratorium because of the amount of groundwater being pumped from the Deschutes River Basin.
The program is aimed at not only protecting the river’s flows but also giving cities and developers a sense of certainty that water will be available as the region grows. To drill a new well, cities or developers or anyone who uses a certain amount of water must buy or lease water rights, which often come from a farmer.
Patrick Griffiths, water resource coordinator with the city of Bend, told lawmakers this week that this is a “critical program to all the other things we’re doing in the basin.”
Griffiths said the region needs this program to work. It provides certainty not only for cities, but also for local businesses like breweries that would like to grow.
“We’re going to roll up our sleeves and continue to work with the (Water Resource) Department and any stakeholders willing to do that with us,” he said.
So far, the stakeholders have reached consensus on a few of the earlier sticking points. Initially, the bill would have eliminated a cap that would limit new pumping rights to 200 cubic feet per second. One cfs is about 450 gallons a minute. Whisnant said he has agreed to keep the cap in place.
Another change is a clause of the bill that would have allocated $2.5 million to the program. Tod Heisler, executive director of the Deschutes River Conservancy, which plays an important part in tracking the water rights, said earlier he was looking forward to having the funds to create new pumping rights.
But during a session in which lawmakers are battling over an approximate $3.1 billion budget shortfall, Whisnant thought attaching a price tag to the bill would kill it.
Whisnant said he’s also agreed to add language to the bill that would ensure that the program is reviewed every five years to make certain the outcomes are good and, if not, allow for changes.
Whisnant is worried what WaterWatch is pushing would end the bill, “and I don’t think that’s what anyone wants. This is a very important bill for Central Oregon. We need this bill. Central Oregon needs this bill ... My role is to facilitate a good bill, good policy, that won’t cost the citizens of Oregon more money, but protect the safety of the river.”
But the environmental advocacy groups point out there is still time to come to a consensus before the program expires.
A fiscal impact statement has not been done on the bill.
Myron, on behalf of WaterWatch, said a 2009 report from the Water Resource Department pointed out concerns that his group would like to see addressed.
The current mitigation program, Myron said, has not been operating long enough to know what the long-term results will be.
One issue, he said, is what’s known as “zones of impact.”
“In other words, if you are drilling a well that is going to cause surface water impact in a particular area, do you mitigate in the same zone of impact or mitigate somewhere else in the basin?” he said.
The report also touches on the issue of water quality, which his group also wants to examine as part of continuing the mitigation program. Depending on where the water is being taken out and what kind of water is being put back in, the temperature could be quite different. If cold water is being pumped out and warmer water is being put back in, that could detrimentally impact the river and fish.
The timing is also important, Myron said.
“When do you mitigate? Does it need to be mitigated bucket for bucket? At the same time? If you’re drawing water out for irrigation during June, July, August, do you mitigate somewhere in those same months or do you mitigate in other months in the year? ... We would like to see some long-term answers as part of this agreement,” Myron said. “At least a commitment to try and resolve those questions.”
Myron said it’s not his group’s intent to kill the bill but instead nail down some assurances before giving it the rubber stamp. He said there is time to get the bill right before the program is set to sunset.
Jonathan Manton, a lobbyist on behalf of Friends of the Metolius, said it doesn’t make sense to ignore the problems that have been identified.
“We’re concerned if we extend the sunset without addressing zone of impacts, we’re looking at negative impacts on the Metolius ... No one I’ve spoken with wants to see the mitigation program end,” he said.
But he told lawmakers, without addressing the issues, they would just be “kicking the ball down the road.”
Lawmakers are scheduled to tackle the bill in a work session this coming week.
Lauren Dake can be reached at 541-419-8074 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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