THROWING WESTERN WATER LAW ON ITS EAR?

Posted on December 5, 2012 by Martha Pagel

How far can affected stakeholders go in fashioning local, “place-based” solutions to water management problems?  In other words, is it OK to throw western water law out on its ear – a little bit -- if no one complains?

The policy question arises in Oregon in connection with recent efforts to balance the need for increased water supply to support the potential for substantial agricultural-based economic growth in the Umatilla Basin – a major Oregon tributary to the Columbia River system – with competing water demands to comply with the Endangered Species Act by restoring and protecting instream flow for listed salmon.  The balancing act also seeks to support treaty-based instream water rights for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation (CTUIR) and restore severely depleted ground water supplies (See CRUSTaskforce). The desire of stakeholders to explore new ideas that go beyond the boundaries established by existing water law is a foreseeable consequence of Oregon’s long-standing commitment to locally-based collaborative efforts to resolve complex natural resource issues  (See Oregon Solutions and http://www.oregon.gov/owrd/LAW/docs/i_Chapter_4_Final.pdf). Just how far should state bureaucrats be willing to go in bending or changing traditional programs and policies to make way for customized, place-based solutions?

The specific example in the Umatilla Basin relates to proposals for establishing a water bank and brokerage system.  (See http://orsolutions.org/beta/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Oregon-Solutions-Presenation-6_18_2012-CRUST.pdf). A broad-based coalition of local interests including individual farmers, irrigation districts, the CTUIR, conservation interests, local governments and agri-businesses have jointly proposed an option for collaborative water management.  Under their concept, each year a water management plan would be filed with the state to describe how water would be used, and possibly redistributed under existing water rights.  The concept includes a bottom line requirement that the water management changes not result in injury to any water user not participating in the plan, and not diminish instream flows.  No harm, no foul.  However, in preliminary discussions, the Oregon Water Resources Department – the state agency in charge of allocating and administering water rights -- has balked at the plan because it could allow water users to ignore priority dates and “spread” water – concepts traditionally abhorred in Western water law.

So, the question is:  Should government get out of the way to let water users figure out their own strategies for managing water – even if it would throw certain principles of Western water law out on its ear? Why not, if it reflects a local consensus and no one complains?