Pull plug on water rights fee

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board April 17, 2013 09:20 am

The state of Oregon’s insatiable appetite for new sources of money might soon extend to charging a fee for documents which date, in some cases, to the Civil War.

Although “thirst” is more appropriate than “appetite” in the case of Senate Bill 217.

The bill, introduced by Gov. John Kitzhaber on behalf of the Oregon Water Resources Department, would impose a $100 yearly fee on each of the 85,000 water rights in the state. Each permit would be subject to the fee, although individual farms and ranches, many of whom have more than a dozen separate water rights, would pay a maximum of $1,000 per year.

According to the Water Resources Department, the new fee is needed because the department’s share of the state’s general fund has dropped.

The clear implication is that water rights holders should be paying more to the agency that oversees the distribution of water in Oregon.

Which sounds fair in a theoretical sense.

Except the actual connection between the state agency’s budget, and the administration of the approximately 3,700 water rights permits in Baker County, is in fact quite tenuous.

Two of the three employees who handle water rights issues in the county — basically, they make sure permit holders get the water they’re entitled to, if the water is available — work for and are paid by Baker County, not the state.

The county spends about $150,000 each year on water rights management, said Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the county board of commissioners.

Yet the money raised through the SB 217 fee would go to the state, not to the county.

The Water Resources Department acknowledges in its 2013 “Legislative Concepts” report that it needs money not just to oversee water rights. The “water resource workload is increasing in complexity,” the report contends, “particularly as it relates to groundwater science.”

It’s plausible that groundwater research could produce results which benefit some farmers and ranchers who have water rights permits. 

Yet as the Water Resources Department concedes, pretty much all the water that’s been found in Oregon has already been claimed. It’s not as if there is a great untapped reservoir, needing only to be primed by an influx of private dollars.

“In most areas of the state, surface water is no longer available for new uses on a year-round basis,” according to the department’s 2009 publication outlining water rights. “Ground water supplies may also be limited in some areas.”

Put simply, SB 217 would require water rights holders to pay for something that probably won’t benefit them.

And although a new, annual bill of $1,000 would be a burden on local landowners — Warner predicts “there would be a lot of thousand-dollar checks written in Baker County” — it seems unlikely that the money would accomplish much.

The Water Resources Department estimates that even after the initial costs of setting up the new fee system have been borne, the water rights fee would bring in $6 million per year.

That’s a proverbial drop in the bucket in the state’s general fund, which amounts to about $6.75 billion per year.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, who represents Baker County in the Legislature, opposes SB 217. Bentz said he’s looking into whether the water rights fee is even constitutional, because water rights are a form of property that are transferred when a piece of ground is sold.

We agree with Bentz. 

We hope SB 217 trickles into legislative history.