SALEM — A proposed 17% fee increase on water transactions and dam inspections has raised concerns about increasing the economic burden on Oregon farmers during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Oregon Water Resources Department is asking lawmakers to raise the fees by passing House Bill 2142, citing a reduced demand for services among water users and lower general fund revenues.
Without the fee increase — which would raise $510,000 for the water rights transactions and $55,000 for dam inspections — OWRD would have to cut its staff by 8.83 full-time positions in mid-2021, said Tom Byler, the agency’s director.
“This would have an impact on our ability to carry out our work. While it’s difficult to estimate exactly how that will play out, we know it will slow down our ability and reduce our capacity,” Byler said during a recent legislative hearing. “We anticipate it could create a longer waiting time for applicants as a result.”
Even with the 17.39% fee increase, OWRD would only recover the equivalent of 2.5 full-time positions, which means 6.33 positions would still be lost, he said. The agency has also left 7 positions unfilled during this biennium due to lack of revenues.
The Oregon Farm Bureau opposes HB 2142, arguing that farmers have been hit hard by the pandemic in domestic and international markets, which has already affected their ability to pay government fees.
“This is reflected in the fact that we’re seeing fewer water rights transactions,” said Mary Anne Cooper, OFB’s vice president of public policy. “People are unable to invest in their farms.”
Though the Farm Bureau supports a fully-functional OWRD, fees for water rights transactions have risen repeatedly over the past decade while wait times for applicants have just grown longer, she said.
“We’re just seeing fees going up and up and up without corresponding value to users,” Cooper said. “Our folks really cannot afford a fee increase in 2021.”
The Oregon Water Resources Congress, which represents irrigation districts, hasn’t yet taken a position on HB 2142 but is also troubled by rising government fees — not only at OWRD, but also at other state agencies.
“We need to find a better way to fund this agency,” said April Snell, the group’s executive director. “There needs to be a discussion about how to best fund not only the Water Resources Department but other natural resource agencies.”
This sentiment was echoed by members of the House Water Committee, which is considering the bill.
“I am appalled that this is happening. I am appalled this agency is having to gut its staff,” said Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie.
It’s tough for farmers to support higher fees when they don’t see an improvement in agency performance, said Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane.
Funding for natural resources agencies is broken and too often ends up on the back of the agricultural community, he said.
“The farmer or rancher is not the end user of that water,” Owens said. “The end user in my mind is the people who end up consuming the product that the ag community is raising.”