Budget cuts erode Oregon water agency's effectiveness

August 19, 2020
Budget cuts erode Oregon water agency's effectiveness

By Sierra Dawn McClain Capital Press

Farm industry leaders fear recent cuts to Oregon Water Resources Department’s budget will have serious impacts on irrigated agriculture and water infrastructure.

Last week, Oregon legislators convened for the second special session of 2020 to balance the state’s budget after COVID-19-related shutdowns reduced revenues.

The Legislature trimmed $3.6 million in general funds from the Oregon Water Resources Department. That’s 7% of the department’s $51 million operating budget, according to Racquel Rancier, the agency’s water policy analyst.

The Oregon Farm Bureau and other groups have expressed concern that the cuts will hurt farms.

The Oregon Water Resources Department “is already severely underfunded,” the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association wrote in a statement to the Legislature.

The cuts mean the department will freeze hiring for at least 11 positions. Leaving positions vacant will have impacts such as reducing the department’s ability to conduct groundwater studies, collect streamflow and water use data, manage water distribution and process water right transactions, said Rancier.

Even worse, according to the Special Districts Association of Oregon, the water resources department will likely lay off 15 people.

“They’re a pretty thin program already. If they have to lay off staff, it’ll make a big difference,” said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Even before budget cuts, the department had only five well inspectors to inspect 3,000 wells annually, 35 watermasters for Oregon’s more than 89,000 authorized water users and two engineers to inspect 75 high-hazard dams and oversee 850 others.

Fewer well-inspection staff will also mean longer waiting times for farmers.

Watermasters are responsible for distributing water according to rules that give landowners with older rights seniority. If the water resources department doesn’t have enough watermasters, that could mean the senior water-right holder’s crops do not get enough water, possibly reducing yields, said Rancier.

Dams, too, will likely not get checked and repaired as often. If Oregon’s high-hazard dams fail, they will result in significant damage and loss of life.

Funding cuts will also limit groundwater basin studies.

”We have drastically underfunded basin studies for years and years and years,” said Cooper of the Oregon Farm Bureau.

A basin study helps define an area’s overall groundwater budget, making planning possible. OWRD staff anticipate studies, like the Walla Walla Groundwater Basin Study, will take longer.

Farm groups continue to call for OWRD to receive additional funding, but experts say it doesn’t look likely because COVID-19 has hit state revenues hard.

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