Randy Stapilus: A better way to manage water

Guest writer Randy Stapilus is a former reporter and editor who has turned to writing and publishing books from Carlton. He has devoted his career to covering politics and government in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In addition to publishing books for himself and others through the Ridenbaugh Press, he maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com. In addition, he continues to write for print and online news publications, including the Salem-based Oregon Capital Chronicle, where this piece originally appeared. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.



A recent report on Oregon’s water shortage, released by the Secretary of State’s Office, prominently featured a cautionary quote from John Wesley Powell, delivered in 1893 as the regional approach to water management started to take form.

The legendary western explorer warned, “I tell you gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not enough water to supply the land.”

He spoke as though that were a bad thing. But experience across the West shows it might point to a useful direction for Oregon.

The report, “State Leadership Must Take Action to Protect Water Security for All Oregonians,” points out that despite the national myth that Oregon is water-drenched, most of the state is arid.

Even many of the wetter areas — including much of the Willamette Valley — have experienced below-average water supplies in recent years. As a result, many farms are making more intensive use of irrigation than they once did.

The problems are accumulating.

“Many communities are not fully integrated into water decisions, and often not even aware there is a problem,” the report stated. “The Oregon Integrated Water Resources Strategy is not clearly connected to state and regional planning efforts, and does not have clear implementation pathways.

“Oregon’s state leadership and agencies do not necessarily share water security priorities. Agencies have distinct areas of focus and limited resources and capacity that limit the ability to engage broadly with communities or work across agency lines.

“Oregon water data is disaggregated, sometimes incomplete, and not set up to support regional governance needs … State water regulatory agencies have broad discretion, but face external pressures that may hinder them from fully using this discretion to benefit the public.”

Oregon has worked on water planning for half a century, but its approach is top-down prescriptive. It basically represents an attempt to establish statewide or basinwide policies to address water needs.

The 11 recommendations in the new report call for maintaining sustained legislative commitment, creating a regional planning system integrated into a state water plan, and enhancing planning and communications among agencies and the public on water issues.

An Oregon water framework would include statewide priorities, a statewide water plan, a coordination body, regional and local water plans and additional regional and local planning bodies. But such a complex system might have a hard time fostering clarity and effective coordination.

Every state from the Great Plains west is facing significant water challenges. And not one of them has succeeded in managing water this way.

Nearly all emphasize another approach, one already built into Oregon’s water system — administration through the prior appropriations doctrine. And perhaps the most successful system in the country can be found right next door in Idaho.

Idaho’s available water resources are, in most regions, sparser than Oregon’s. As a result, it has sometimes struggled to deliver water as needed.

For decades, the state tensely balanced water demands for its agricultural and hydropower systems — and in smaller amounts for other uses. But that arrangement blew up in 1982 with a state court decision giving primacy to water use by an electric utility.

A series of negotiations followed, and the settlement that emerged featured an adjudication of all Idaho water in the Snake River system. The largest of its type in the nation’s history, it covered close to 90% of all the water in the state.

The 28-year adjudication — done at what amounted to the speed of light in the world of water adjudication — was highly successful. It took into account every person and organization seeking to use water in the system, and rationalized who was able to receive what.

The court — and administratively, the state Department of Water Resources — bases case-by-case decisions on state law and court precedent, with some leeway to account for specific local conditions and needs. A state water resources board sets overall policy.

Oregon has in place the basis for taking a similar approach.

Like other western states, Oregon allows users to obtain water rights under a “prior appropriation” system, in which senior users — “first in time, first in right” — have priority as long as they use the water beneficially. Policy decisions are made based in part on what is considered a beneficial use, and who can claim it, followed by negotiations among the people affected.

In some places, fish and wildlife can obtain what amounts to water rights under a trust system, as can recreational and other users.

In limited ways, Oregon already does some of this. A major water adjudication is underway in the Klamath River basin, and much of the rest of the state has been adjudicated at various times.

But the results have never been well-integrated. And they have not been incorporated into a statewide system, a key element to successful management.

Oregon can’t, through legislation or regulation, create more water. But it can more clearly articulate how available water should be used.

The new advisory report, coupled with case studies from around the regional neighborhood, points the way.


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