April 20, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Deal met on water mitigation

Apr 21, 2011

April 20, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Deal met on water mitigation

Deal met on water mitigation

Whisnant's bill would extend Deschutes River Basin protections till at least 2029

By Lauren Dake / The Bulletin
Published: April 20. 2011 4:00AM PST

SALEM — Lawmakers and environmental advocates reached an agreement they hope will protect the Deschutes River Basin and provide cities and businesses with the certainty they need to grow.

“This is a major development,” said Doug Riggs, a lobbyist for the Central Oregon Cities Organization. “It's a big breakthrough.”

Eight years ago, when the cities were facing a growth moratorium because of the amount of groundwater being pumped from the basin, the Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program was created. Simply put, the program ensures that when water is taken from the basin, enough water is pumped back in.

The program is set to expire in 2014. Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, said it would be his mission this session to keep the program in place indefinitely. Instead, he has negotiated with environmental groups to put a 15-year sunset on the program. If the bill were to pass, the program would remain intact until at least 2029.

“I'm happy we will continue the program,” Whisnant said.

Studies have shown that the basin's ground and surface water are connected. When groundwater levels go down, so do river levels.

To drill a new well, cities, developers and anyone who uses enough water must buy lease or water rights, which often come from a farmer.

Ensuring that they will be able to buy water rights, and certainty that there will be water available, are important before developing.

“Hopefully the sunset is long enough that it does not discourage businesses from growing,” he said.

Environmental groups pointed out there were possible issues with the mitigation program based on a 2009 report done by the Water Resource Department. Before putting the program in permanent statute, they said, they wanted some of the potential problems addressed.

They pointed to concerns about whether the quality of water being pumped in was the same as the water replaced. The report pointed out that both the timing and location of the mitigation could also matter. If cold water is being pumped out in January and warm water put back in during the summer, it could negatively impact the river.

Jim Myron, a lobbyist for WaterWatch, a nonprofit that aims to protect Oregon's rivers, said his group is pleased the bill in its current form also includes a five-year review and flexibility to make changes.

Myron said the groups have reached an agreement.

“That doesn't always happen around here,” he said. “But we figured it was worth the time ... to reach an agreement rather than continuing the debate.”

Although this is a big step for the two sides, House Bill 3623 will still need to be approved by both the House and Senate.

“We're hoping a strong vote on the House will be indication this bill is worth getting passed,” Riggs said.

House Bill 3623

Sponsors: Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver
Central Oregon impact: Whisnant declared early on this bill would be his priority this session. The bill aims at protecting the Deschutes River and ensuring there is enough water in the basin to protect fish and provide security for future growth.
What's next: The bill still needs to be voted out of the Energy, Environment and Water Committee. From there, the House and Senate will vote on it and then it will need to be signed into law by the governor.
Read the bill: http://www.leg.state.or.us/11reg/measures /hb3600.dirhb3623.intro.html

Lauren Dake can be reached at 541-419-8074 or at ldake@bendbulletin.com.

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010

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