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Oregon asks for guidance on water projects
'Peak and ecological flows' stipulation needs translation

by Mitch Lies, Capital Press 10/8/09

SALEM -- The Oregon Water Resources Department is looking outside the department to help it interpret new environmental stipulations attached to the allocation of state funds for water storage projects.

Oregon Water Resources Department Director Phil Ward said at a legislative committee hearing Oct. 1 the state would like help in interpreting "peak and ecological flows."

Under a law adopted earlier this year, the state may require applicants to protect "peak and ecological flows" before it provides money for water storage projects.

The language changes from "may" require to "shall" require beginning in 2012.

The department has hired a former Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife scientist to help it determine the state's responsibilities in administering the programs, Ward said.

But, he said, the department also wants help from scientists outside the agency to ensure its analyses of "peak and ecological flows" are based on sound science.

Oregon lawmakers last session inserted the protections in two funding programs administered by the department.

John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch, said the protections ensure projects aren't harmful to fish or the environment.

"It's important to maintain a suite of flow types for river health," DeVoe said.

"As we go into a phase where we may be looking at more (water) storage, we need to make sure that below these projects, we aren't sterilizing rivers by removing peak and ecological flows from the system," he said.

The state has addressed peak flows in the past, said Anita Winkler, executive director of Oregon Water Resources Congress. But it has little to no experience addressing ecological flows. The water-user community is concerned over how the state will define "ecological flows," she said.

It could be, Winkler said, that protecting ecological flows is so cumbersome water users will avoid tapping the state funds.

Protection for the flows is included in House Bill 3369.

Lawmakers in the multi-part bill put $2.5 million in lottery-backed bonds into an Eastern Oregon aquifer recharge project.

The project could pump millions of dollars into Umatilla Basin agriculture by providing farmers with enough water to produce high-value crops. The basin's farmers have been cut off from groundwater for portions of the irrigation season for several years due to declining aquifers.

Under the law, that project is exempt from the peak and ecological flow stipulations.

HB3369 also made available $10 million in lottery-backed general obligation bonds in the state's Water Development Loan Fund for implementation and construction of water storage projects. The loan fund increases to $15 million in the next biennium. Projects funded through this program must address the new flow stipulations.

Lawmakers also created the Water Investment Grant Fund, but stopped short of putting money into the new fund.

It, too, is subject to the new flow stipulations.

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