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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow LEGISLATURE LOOKS AT WATER FEES



By James Sinks

Wes-Com Capitol Reporter

SALEM — The days of free water in Oregon could be numbered.

Legislators are considering new rules to force all state water consumers to measure how much they use and pay fees on the volume. Farmers and ranchers — the users who would be directly affected — are trying to pull the plug on the idea.

The goal, proponents said in a public hearing this week, would be to encourage users to conserve more of a scarce resource and help fund the activities of the state's swamped Water Resources Department.

Now the state charges a one-time water right application fee, but nothing for the water that's drawn from rivers and wells afterward.

"There is little incentive to use water efficiently because it is free," said Bob Hunter, attorney for Portland-based Water Watch, which advocates for water conservation.

The state administers some 84,000 water rights that divert water from more than 130,000 places, said Adam Sussman, legislative coordinator for the water oversight agency.

The legislation would allow the fees but doesn't say how much they would be.

Sussman said the department is unable to keep up with customers' needs because it lacks sufficient money, and millions in fees would help ensure adequate staff and reduce the need to tap the state general fund.

The notion of saddling users with new costs for equipment or charging them new fees went over like a wet blanket with representatives of the agricultural industry, who said the state's law specifically calls for using water for economic purposes.

Katie Fast, a lobbyist for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, called any such fee "a disincentive for doing business."

Rep. Jeff Kruse, R-Sutherlin, whose family farms near Roseburg, said the whole idea of billing agricultural water users to spur conservation is a faulty premise because it already makes bad economic sense to over-irrigate crops and run pumps more than necessary.

"The assumption the ag industry overuses water because it doesn't cost them anything is absurd," he said.

Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, chairman of the House Water Committee, said he thinks much more water is being wasted inside cities, where users already are gauging and paying for their use.

The committee did not vote on two related water measures, House Bills 2976 and 2977.

The state has required meters as part of new water-right permits issued since the early 1990s to measure the amount that's being used, but that doesn't extend to historical water rights for large-scale farm operations.

Irrigation districts measure how much water is taken from rivers, but many of the individual users don't gauge what they use.


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