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Oregon water rights transaction fee hike gains traction

A bill proposing to raise fees on many Oregon water rights transactions by nearly 16 percent has unanimously cleared the Subcommittee on Natural Resources of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means

EO MEDIA GROUP - A linear irrigation system operates in a corn field in Oregon's Willamette Valley. A bill proposing to raise fees on many Oregon water rights transactions by nearly 16 percent has unanimously cleared the Subcommittee on Natural Resources of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.SALEM — A key group of lawmakers has approved a 16 percent fee hike for Oregon water rights transactions while a more controversial proposal has languished.

Fees for numerous water rights transactions administered by the Oregon Water Resources Department would collectively be raised by 15.88 percent under House Bill 2295, which averts the loss of 5.5 full-time staff dedicated to processing such requests.

"People would have to be laid off and transactions would go through slower," said Rachel Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress, which represents irrigation districts.

"You've got to have people at the department who can process those pieces of paper," Snell said.

The bill is scheduled for a June 16 vote by the Joint Committee on Ways and Means after recently clearing its Natural Resources Subcommittee with a "do pass" recommendation, which bolsters its chances of approval by the full Legislature.

If HB 2295 does become effective, it would mark the third increase to water rights transactions fees since 2009, but if it fails, those fees would revert to 2009 levels.

The OWRD argues the latest hike is necessary due to rising salary, benefit and retirement expenses, and points out that it's signficantly reduced backlogs of various transaction types in recent years.

The Oregon Farm Bureau does not oppose HB 2295 as long as there are no other new fee increases that would skew funding for water rights transactions more heavily toward irrigators, said Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel for the organization.

Currently, the total cost of such transactions — which covers roughly 35 staff positions — is split evenly between the general fund and irrigator fees.

A proposal to impose a new $100 fee on all existing water rights in Oregon, House Bill 2706, is also before the Joint Ways and Means Committee but it hasn't been referred to a subcommittee, which is generally a necessary first step toward passage.

While HB 2706 will technically stay alive through the end of the 2017 legislative session, it's expected to go no further this year, said Snell of OWRC.