By DAMIAN MANN
An Oregon Senate bill that proposes a first-ever annual fee on water rights is all wet, say some local legislators.
“It’s a mess,” said Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford Democrat.
He said Senate Bill 217 is so badly written that many lawmakers remain unclear as to who would be taxed the fee.
Bates said he’s been assured the bill doesn’t place a fee on private wells, though some legislators think it could be a back-door attempt to eventually charge fees for all water — including from wells.
The proposed fee would charge $100 every two years for every water right owned by a landowner if the amount of water consumed daily is more than 15,000 gallons. A cap of $1,000 would be placed on the amount of fees that could be charged to a single property owner.
If passed, the fee is expected to raise $10 million to $12 million a year for water management in Oregon.
Bates said he’s not sure whether the bill has legs. More than likely it will fall flat or be extensively rewritten, he said.
Ron Roth, owner of Eagle Mill Farm near Ashland, estimates he uses 139,000 gallons a day from two water rights he has on Butler Creek and Bear Creek.
He said he is open to discussion about the fee but would like more information before fully endorsing it.
“I can see how a lot of people would have a knee-jerk no’ reaction to anything, anytime,” Roth said.
He said he might support paying $200 a year in fees if he could be assured the money would go to the Oregon Water Resources Department as promised and not into the state’s general fund to be used for other purposes.
Brenda Ortigoza Bateman, a senior policy coordinator with the Water Resources Department, said the state currently isn’t collecting an annual fee on the 85,000 water rights throughout Oregon. She said wells wouldn’t be subject to the proposed fees.
If the bill passes, the money collected would be used to pay for her department, which has seen general fund revenues dwindle during the past two decades and staff levels fall from 160 to 144. Assistant water masters, who worked for counties and helped with water resource work, also have dwindled in numbers since the 1990s, from 40 to 14.
At the same time, the workload has increased because of new regulations, Ortigoza Bateman said.
The department’s scientists undertake field work related to water management throughout the state. Groundwater scientists evaluate complex water right applications, Ortigoza Bateman said.
In southeastern Oregon, the water master is responsible for regulating and distributing water across 11,000 square miles.
In northwestern Oregon, the water master is responsible for several hundred dams that require inspection.
She said a water-rights fee had been studied for several years before the bill was introduced. The bill proposes a flat fee for each water right, addressing fears the fee would be based on the amount of water consumed, Ortigoza Bateman said.
Legislators also are adding language that could require municipalities to pay up to $2,500 a year in fees for water rights, she said.
Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said the same group supporting the bill has previously supported placing meters on wells.
“I know the goal of the water-rights lobby is to raise revenue from every well,” he said.
The dangers in passing a bill of this kind are the administrative rules that could be written in subsequent years that would spell out how the legislation is carried out, Richardson said.
Most constituents in his district would oppose the bill as just another way to add a tax, he said.
With state revenues expected to rise by $1.7 billion in the next two years, the state doesn’t need more taxes, but should learn to live within its means, Richardson said.
“We do not need to increase fees on water rights or anything else,” he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.