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Many oppose 2005 version of biennial bill over who owns water

By MITCH LIES Oregon Staff Writer

SALEM – The chairman of the House Water Committee may have set the tenor of this session’s debate over how much control an irrigation district wields over a patron’s water rights in a statement he made during a hearing Feb. 16.

Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton, said that before he supports efforts to move a bill clarifying the state’s position, he’s looking for opposing sides to agree on whether a senior water right holder outside a district gets first crack at a district patron’s voluntarily canceled right.

“In the chair’s mind, that’s an issue that needs to be resolved before the chair can get very enthusiastic about this bill,” Jenson said.

Under House Bill 2172, an irrigation district would have first crack at moving the water to another patron in the district if a patron voluntarily cancels a water right. Only if no district members wanted the water would it become available for a user outside the district.

On Feb. 16, several testifiers opposed the 2005 version of a bill that water rights advocates biennially introduce in an attempt to clarify how much control a district has over its patrons’ rights.

WaterWatch, a Portland-based water conservation advocacy group, wants a water right that is voluntarily canceled put back in-stream for conservation uses.

Water For Life, meanwhile, wants a water right voluntarily canceled to go to the next senior user – whether the user be inside or outside a district.

The Oregon Farm Bureau and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association also opposed the current draft of the bill in the bill’s first hearing. Representatives, however, said they are hoping to resolve their disputes with the bill in upcoming discussions with the Oregon Water Resources Congress.

The Oregon Water Resources Congress, which was the only group supporting the bill, represents irrigation districts. The congress is concerned that districts will lose their ability to function if a patron’s water rights can be transferred outside the district when a patron seeks to voluntarily cancel a right.

“HB2172 provides a means by which such a water right remains in the district and is used for irrigation instead of losing the water right to agricultural use,” testified Anita Winkler, executive director of the congress.

Loss of a water right to a district reduces revenue generated from fees and inhibits a district’s ability to deliver water to users at the end of a ditch, Winkler said.

Winkler said at the hearing she was surprised to find that the Oregon Farm Bureau and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association were opposed to HB2172. The two groups were part of a task force that sought during the interim between legislative sessions to iron out issues surrounding the bill.

Katie Fast, a government affairs director for the bureau, said, however, that the bureau’s members weren’t comfortable with some provisions of HB2172. Fast added that the bill is not a high priority for the bureau.

The issue was addressed in House Bill 3298 last session. That bill cleared the House floor, but stalled in the Senate Water and Land Use Committee.

Mitch Lies is based in Salem. His e-mail address is mlies@capitalpress.com

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