State to spend $538M on water projects

Date:
July 28, 2021
State to spend $538M on water projects

About half the money comes from one-time federal funding

A devastating drought helped compel Oregon lawmakers to spend big on water legislation in 2021, investing in long-range planning as well as specific projects.

Natural resource organizations have applauded the Legislature’s focus on resolving water quantity and quality problems but warn that it can’t rest on its laurels, since these challenges won’t be solved in a year.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to happen,” said April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress, which represents irrigation districts.

The Legislature allocated more than $538 million for water investments during this year’s session. That included $275 million in federal coronavirus relief funding for infrastructure projects, which was largely directed toward municipal improvements.

Agriculture-related projects also received money — including $14 million to upgrade Wallowa Dam and $10 million for piping canals in the Deschutes Basin.

A fund for water supply development grants was replenished with $30 million.

In light of the huge investments required for water supply development in the state, $30 million in grants “doesn’t go very far,” Snell said. “It is a drop in the bucket compared to the needs we have.”

However, without the added $30 million, only $3 million would have been left remaining in the grant fund, said Racquel Rancier, policy manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

“We wouldn’t have been able to provide much assistance after that $3 million was allocated,” she said.

Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said the Legislature should clarify that the grants are meant to fund storage projects, such as reservoirs that save winter runoff for irrigation use.

Stone said the grants have mostly gone to conservation projects, which are helpful, but getting serious about climate change will mean extending water resources.

“It’s not doing what we created it to do,” he said.

Lawmakers devoted $1 million to study the reallocation of water behind 13 federal dams in the Willamette Basin.

Though the dams are administered by the federal government, water transfers and wildlife impacts come under the jurisdiction of state regulators.

The money will allow state regulators to study how the transfers should be carried out, which will involve input from irrigators, cities and environmental groups, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

The money will hopefully resolve conflicts over water transfers “on the front end,” so farmers don’t have to litigate to protect their interests, she said. “That really was necessary, because without it, I don’t see how the state could have participated at the level it will need to.”

If not for the influx of federal funding, the outlook would have been gloomy for irrigators, since the state’s Water Resources Department was expected to lay off staff, said Snell.

For various water transactions, “that would result in slower processing times and certainly not an improvement in work,” she said.

The agency was set to lose eight positions — from 178 to 170 — under Gov. Kate Brown’s biennial budget, but lawmakers increased the number to 209 positions due to better-than-expected tax revenues and federal dollars.

“It was great to see the budget turn-around,” Rancier said. “The water issues we’re seeing are incredibly complex and the easy water solutions are gone.”

However, Snell noted the federal money was “one-time stop-gap funding.”

In sum, the 2021 legislative session moved the state in the right direction toward having a more resilient water system, Stone said. “People finally started talking with one another, not at one another.”

Lawmakers spent $5 million for planning work and $11 million for data collection and technology improvements, which natural resources groups say are necessary steps for the future.

About $2.4 million was specifically allocated to study all 18 major hydrologic basins with new technology that measures evapotranspiration and assistance from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Those studies will allow regulators to better understand groundwater resources across the state, which is meant to prevent over-allocation.

“We need to identify those areas of concern before they get critical,” said Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane. “The current way we’re managing the groundwater resource is not beneficial to anyone.”

Measuring groundwater is more complex than surface water, relying on observation wells that act as “straws” instead of more readily visible stream flows and reservoir levels, he said.

“We’re shooting in the dark, looking through a couple straws,” Owens said.Photo Matuesz Perkowski

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI Capital Press

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