WaterWatch is currently working to protect native fish and aquatic ecosystems on several streams across Oregon threatened with municipal water development – including on the Chetco, Clackamas, McKenzie, and Row Rivers. The Kilchis River is also at risk. These and other cases demonstrate that although the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) has both the tools and the legal direction to protect fish, the OWRD appears more interested in fabricating loopholes and interpreting fish protection laws out of existence rather than embracing its duties to protect Oregon’s fish and rivers.
On the Chetco River on the lovely Oregon southern coast, the City of Brookings and Harbor Water PUD hold enough water permits issued by the OWRD to nearly dry up this important river in the summer and early fall. One by one, OWRD is failing to put any fish protection conditions on these permits. WaterWatch is working to ensure that these permits are conditioned to protect stream flows and fish on this much loved and economically important salmon and steelhead stream.
The Kilchis River is also at risk. Home to one of the few viable runs of chum salmon in Oregon, municipal interests hold water rights that could dry up the river completely in the dry season.
Closer to Portland, Lake Oswego, Tigard, West Linn, Oregon City and the North Clackamas County Water Commission continue their efforts to secure water rights that would cut flows in the lower Clackamas River nearly in half during the late summer and early fall. The Clackamas supports four runs of ESA listed fish. While the state has determined that salmon and steelhead in the lower Clackamas River need stream flows of 650 cubic feet per second during the summer and early September, OWRD refuses to put any limitations on the rights of these municipal entities to divert water during this time period to ensure that critical fish flows are met. What makes this more galling is that most of these municipal entities don’t even need the water. In June, WaterWatch challenged the OWRD’s approvals of these diversions in the Oregon Court of Appeals.
WaterWatch’s work to secure meaningful stream flow and fish conditions on these lower Clackamas River water rights has highlighted several significant problems in the state’s handling of municipal water permits.
First, Oregon does almost nothing to evaluate municipal claims of water demand. The state needs both processes and standards with which to evaluate municipal claims of water demand. The OWRD currently takes any claim for water at face value.
Second, OWRD lacks any systematic way to account for overlapping municipal water demand. In other words, OWRD regularly allows two or more water developers to claim water rights to serve the very same people and service area. This double (or even triple) counting leads to municipal water right speculation and hoarding at substantial cost to rivers and fish. In today’s age of well-developed and readily available GIS mapping and data systems, it is way past time to correct this deficiency and conduct this critical analysis.
Third, neither the state nor Metro, the regional government body in the Portland metro area, has any system to ensure that urban areas select the least environmentally sensitive water source or require creation of regional plans. A prime example is the urban growth that Metro directed to the Damascus area. This has caused a run by some municipal water developers on the lower
Clackamas River, which can ill-afford more impacts, while the Bull Run system - and, amazingly, other Clackamas area water providers - have excess capacity. Another example is the city of Tigard, which has needlessly chosen to pile its impacts onto the most environmentally sensitive source in the region, the Clackamas River, rather than continue to use Bull Run water (the less environmentally damaging option).
WaterWatch’s work to prevent the state from issuing more rights to drain the lower Clackamas River and our experience on other rivers like the Chetco and McKenzie highlights deficits in vision, leadership and process from the OWRD in carrying out its duties to protect Oregon’s stream flows and fish as it manages Oregon’s municipal water right system. While Oregon must find a way to serve the reasonable water needs of Oregon’s growing cities, the state also must develop systems to evaluate the ecological sensitivity of source waters and to ensure that future development is not only necessary but also occurs from the least sensitive sources. Rivers like the Clackamas, Salmon, Kilchis, Chetco and others face a very tough road ahead if Oregon fails to evaluate and temper the speculative and rampant municipal water development proposed for these and other ecologically significant rivers.
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