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Panel adopts comprehensive Oregon water strategy

By MITCH LIES, Capital Press 8/3/12

SALEM -- Oregon's first comprehensive plan for addressing the state's future water needs is launching with apparently little support from agriculture, despite widespread support from state natural resources agencies.

In a packed hearing room, the Oregon Water Resources Commission on Aug. 2 unanimously adopted the Oregon Integrated Water Resources Strategy, which was three years in the making.

"I think we have a terrific first Integrated Water Resources Strategy in front of us," said Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Coba said the Board of Agriculture previously endorsed the plan.

The strategy was initiated in 2009 legislation and developed under the direction of an 18-member citizen advisory group. The group worked with Oregon Water Resources Department staff and representatives from three other natural resource agencies and heard hundreds of hours of public testimony in hearings and open houses around the state.

The strategy passed despite criticism from the Oregon Cattlemen's Association that it doesn't address several association priorities. Among them are explicit calls for additional sources of water to expand agricultural production and plans to coordinate planning for water shortages and water use with other states.

"The Integrated Water Resources Strategy should make it a priority to gather more data and to assess in a credible and meaningful way the positions relied on by federal and state regulators to allocate water ... away from agriculture and rural communities to instream uses," said Jim Welsh, a lobbyist for the cattle association.

"Implementation of the IWRS will ultimately result in significant amounts of money being used by already strapped agencies to finance new policies and regulations that could significantly harm Oregon's economy and rural communities," Welsh said.

A rancher from Harney County also spoke against the strategy.

"There is an overriding tone of environmentalists' agenda in this paper," said Tim Smith.

And the Oregon Farm Bureau was notably absent.

"We support part of the document, other pieces we don't support," said Katie Fast, director of government affairs for the Farm Bureau.

Fast said the strategy recommends the state pursue projects to benefit instream and out-of-stream uses, but doesn't prioritize the uses.

"It asks for conflicting principles, and it doesn't say how you are going to handle and mitigate the conflicts," she said.

"It comes down to the point where it is a lot of concepts and lofty goals, but doesn't prioritize them and it doesn't break down an action plan on how to meet them," Fast said.

The strategy includes calls for increased data to help the state determine instream and out-of-stream needs and resources. And it includes recommended actions in 13 areas, including:

* Increasing water-use efficiency and water conservation.

* Improving access to built storage.

* Improving watershed health.

* Taking advantage of existing infrastructure to develop hydroelectric power.

* Encouraging regional approaches to water and wastewater systems.

* Funding development and implementation of the strategy.

Coba and other agency heads said they plan to seek funding from the Oregon Legislature in the 2013 session to begin implementing the strategy.

"I think the next step, will be more important, and possibly more challenging," Coba said.

"We are very pleased to see the commission move forward and adopt this, particularly with the endorsement of so many groups," Oregon Water Resources Department Director Phil Ward said. "That said, now we have to find a way in these tough economic times to make this strategy happen around the state."




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