Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice

Eugene, Oregon        March 2–5, 2017

The Citizens of Rockaway Beach, Oregon—How One Community Started to Fight for Their Drinking Water, and Ended Up Fighting for Us All

 

Presented by: Nancy Webster, Citizens for Rockaway Beach Watershed Protection; Kate Taylor, Frigate Adventure Travel; Steve Perry, Citizens for Rockaway Beach Watershed Protection; Jason Gonzales, Oregon Wild.

This panel featured citizens of Rockaway Beach, Oregon who experienced the destruction of their local watersheds by clearcutting. The panelists spoke about their experiences throughout the clearcutting process, including their frustrations with inaction from both the local and state governments.

Rockaway Beach, a small town on the northern Oregon coast, relies on Jetty Creek for its freshwater supply. One panelist described the creek as “a crevice between hills, but it’s our lifeline.” Yet, from 2003–2014, timber companies removed eighty-two percent of the trees around Jetty Creek. Overall, timber companies have removed ninety percent of the trees from Jetty Creek. Often, these companies performed aerial sprays of “chemical cocktails” over the trees before and after clearcutting. The State of Oregon does not require timber companies to release information about what chemicals these sprays contain, nor does the state provide notice to locals before sprays occur. The Oregon Forestry Practices Act contains almost no requirements for watershed protection. Furthermore, the City of Rockaway Beach, the municipality with regulatory authority of Jetty Creek, does not require any notification or information on the contents of chemicals.

The combination of a lack of regulatory oversight and an acquiescence to the timber industry has effectively ruined Jetty Creek. Since clearcutting began, levels of trihalomethanes in Jetty Creek have rapidly increased and are far beyond the EPA’s suggested levels. The turbidity of Jetty Creek has also increased, reducing fish populations. Further, logging has negatively impacted bird and beaver populations, forcing animals away from an otherwise seemingly wild landscape and creating a the appearance of a “Silent Spring.” The reduced water quality has also forced Rockaway Beach residents to drink from packaged water bottles. Some residents keep water dispensers in their homes. This is the only alternative the City of Rockaway Beach has to Jetty Creek, as leaky septic systems and percolating seawater have made the area’s groundwater unsafe for consumption.

These are not the only problems that locals have experienced at the hands of the timber industry. Panelist Kate Taylor, for example, commented on how the logging negatively impacts water-tourism. Taylor is a professional fishing guide who works in the area, and she recounted the negative experiences her customers have when the river they are fishing turn to “chocolate mud” because of nearby logging. When she asked the Oregon Department of Forestry about this issue, the agency became “defensive” and did not assist her. Taylor’s experience mirrored the other panelists’ struggles to bring their issues to the attention of city, county, and state government officials.

When the panelists initially sought to confront the issue, they approached their local, municipal governments, but the Rockaway Beach City Council rejected all efforts against the timber industry. The panelists believed the city is clinging on to a cultural string, instead of supporting local economic growth. After inaction by the local government, the citizens turned to the state. The state responded without any tangible policy change. The state, like the local government, seemed too tied to the cultural idea Oregon’s logging industry. This steadfast protection of the timber industry does not produce economic gain. For example, logging companies are not allowed to perform aerial chemical sprays on federal lands in Oregon. The state’s use of aerial chemical sprays is simply a concession to the industry.

Frustrated with the state and city, the citizens performed “citizen science” to prove to regulators that the logging industry has been negatively affecting watersheds. Through citizen action, the panelists and other members of the public have created a series of legislative proposals to limit aerial spraying in the timber industry. Oregon Democratic State Senator Michael E. Dembrow recently sponsored Senate Bill 892, also known as “The Timber Aerial Spray Right to Know” Bill. This bill was accompanied by Senate Bill 500, which provides agriculturalists with a cause of action for damages resulting from timber companies that conduct aerial sprays.

Overall, any short-term gains in the legislature will prove insufficient. The panelists warned that other parts of the Oregon coast, notably Short Sands Beach, are in imminent danger of succumbing to the same fate as Jetty Creek. The only true way to prevent watershed destruction in Oregon, the panelists contended, is to fundamentally reshape the state’s approach to the timber industry.

Matthew Kilby

Image: Sunset on Rockaway Beach, Oregon.  Flickr user Jake Melara, Creative Commons.


Over the last five months, Oregon lawmakers have been considering three bills that address the state’s ongoing inability to measure available groundwater as well as the state’s funding options for this much-needed research. Oregon’s agricultural industry, which accounts for eighty-five percent of the state’s water consumption, has been largely unregulated because the state’s Water Resources Department does not have updated knowledge as to how much groundwater is actually available. The long-term sustainability of water sources is an issue making its way to the forefront of many state legislatures, especially the agriculture-heavy states impacted by the recently unpredictable climate.

Oregon is one of many states that allows ranchers to pump water from underground sources, provided they obtain the proper permit. Oregon’s problem is that the state’s Water Resources Department has been handing out permits without knowing how much groundwater is available. Oregon Governor Kate Brown recommended in the 2017-2019 budget that the state double its capacity to perform groundwater research.

Oregon ranchers can legally extract nearly one trillion gallons of groundwater per year; however, a less established number is how much water the state collects per year from precipitation and other sources. The Pacific Northwest state has experienced an explosion of wells in recent decades as the state’s population continues to grow. There are an estimated 400,000 wells in the state, and the majority of well owners are simply on an honor system not to exceed their groundwater allowance. Even without consideration of recent droughts, it is clear that precipitation has not been replenishing the groundwater that Oregon ranchers are pumping. Over-pumping wells depletes Oregon creeks, which harms fish, and threatens communities as well as wildlife.

A permitted rancher is allowed to drill, so long as the well will not have a substantial impact on any river or lake. However, wells within a mile of a stream are subject to stricter rules in the state. The Oregon Water Resources Department is the state agency that appropriates groundwater and allows irrigators to dig new wells. The department is required to make sure the added stress of a new well will not drain an aquifer; yet up until one year ago, even when regulators suspected harm, permits were still being given out. Recently, state officials realized that the lax permit process was depleting Oregon’s water, forcing the department to stop processing new applications. The department contends that they lacked sufficient data to realize sooner that the over-approval of permits was causing water shortages. The department’s budget and staffing has remained stagnant over the past thirty years. Oregon lawmakers have made efforts to increase the department’s budget ever since it was cut in the last recession, but there has been enormous pushback from ranchers and other agricultural interests who have brought lawsuits and organized bills to stop state regulators from imposing water restrictions.

The most recent full-scale review of Oregon’s groundwater supply was conducted in 1968 by the federal government, which found that there was a shortfall of 11 billion gallons of water. The 1968 study found that in Harney Valley, one of Oregon’s nine key agricultural areas at risk of over-pumping, precipitation returned eighty-five billion gallons of water per year, while Harney Valley ranchers are permitted to withdrawal ninety-six billion gallons of groundwater per year. There is a major problem between the supply and demand of groundwater in Oregon’s agricultural areas, and since 1968, water use has only increased.

Current state-funded researchers have analyzed Harney Valley’s groundwater supply and expect to finish their study by 2020. However, Harney Valley is one of eighteen drainage basins in the state that require additional research to determine how much groundwater is actually available. At the current state spending levels, Oregon’s current research team will not complete studies of all eighteen basins until 2096. The state would suffer a major water crisis if Oregon ranchers continued to over-pump while waiting for research results during this seventy-nine-year gap. Oregon’s Water Resources Department suggested that completion of the water basin studies would cost between forty-five million and seventy-five million dollars.

Governor Brown proposed a new budget plan in December 2016 that requested 1.8 million dollars devoted to a new team of researchers to study the underground water sources in Oregon. Under the plan, five new field workers would be hired to perform research projects every five years. The new plan proposed an increase in funding for Oregon’s Water Resources Department of nine percent, bringing the departments total spending to $118.6 million. The Governor recognized that ongoing development in combination with drought conditions have forced Oregon into an unsustainable state.

Oregon lawmakers have also been presented with three bills that address the issue of how to pay for an expansion in the state’s groundwater studies. Oregon Representative Ken Helm introduced all three bills,

Fee for groundwater research

The first bill would charge water users, both business and agricultural, a one hundred dollar annual fee with a cap that would go towards groundwater research. Pursuant to the bill, personal wells would be exempt. Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber proposed a similar one hundred dollar fee in 2013 but pulled all support for the fee just one day later due to significant backlash. If passed, the first proposed bill would raise roughly eight million dollars in the 2017-2019 biennium for the Water Resources Department. Outside of the electricity costs of operating their water pumps, water users in Oregon currently pay nothing for the water they use.

Mandatory monitoring

The second proposed bill would require water users to install a measuring device that captures the rate and amount of water at each point it diverts from the water source. The state currently has no way to measure how much water well owners, who are on an honor system not to over-pump, use. Measuring devices can cost up to a few thousand dollars. While the measuring device is seemingly a one-time investment for water users, the device may require additional costly maintenance.

Budget increase for more groundwater research

The third bill proposed calls for $8.2 million in general fund dollars to help pay for the groundwater research expansion. The public’s response to the proposed bill is mixed, with some farmers applauding the legislative action and others disgruntled by the undue burden placed on water users. The third bill was endorsed by the House Energy and Environment Committee and passed on to budget writers in Salem, but in June, legislative budget writers approved a Water Resources Department budget that had no additional money for groundwater studies.

Oregon’s policy has been to approve permits for new wells so long as there appears to be no potential harm to neighboring water sources. Despite the lack of data behind the actual amount of groundwater available in the state, Oregon’s policy in the past has been to approve the building of new wells. One year ago, however, state officials halted all permit approvals. Governor Brown’s budget plan suggests her understanding, with many in agreement, that it is impossible to determine the potential harm to neighboring water sources when the state does not have sufficient knowledge on how much groundwater is available. In response to the proposed legislation, Oregon’s policy of approving wells may become much stricter. The state may choose to adopt a statute similar to Colorado’s. In Colorado, applicants who wish to build new wells have the burden of proving that enough water already exists before a permit is granted. Colorado’s Division of Water Resources also publishes annual reports on groundwater level data collected by the division available to the public. Another potential response is to adopt a more stringent cap of total water use where users can buy and sell water rights, similar to the common practice in Australia. Oregon could also choose to charge a per-gallon fee on owners of water rights.

A stricter approach to the way Oregon allocates well permits may be in the state’s future, but it could take multiple legislative sessions before legislation is passed. Lawmakers did support one water-funding bill this session, projected to bring in $838,000 in the next biennium through increased fees on water rights applications and transfers. The fee increase is a slow start as Oregon continues to fall behind on the measuring of its water usage. Helm will potentially revive the bills in the next short legislative session in 2018.

 

Sources:

Kelly House & Mark Graves, Water giveaway threatens livelihoods, wildlife, The Oregonian (Aug. 26, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/page/draining_oregon_day_1.html.

Andrew Theen, Gov. Brown asks to expand groundwater studies following Oregonian investigation, The Oregonian (Dec. 3, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/12/gov_kate_brown_asks_to_expand.html.

Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Lawmaker wants groundwater tracking and fees to speed up research, The Oregonian (Dec. 22, 2016), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2016/12/lawmaker_now_is_a_good_time_to.html.

Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Lawmakers plan hearings on 3 water bills, The Oregonian (Mar. 21, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/03/draining_oregon_lawmakers_will.html.

Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Bill to fund $8.2 million in groundwater studies passes key hurdle, The Oregonian (Apr. 14, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/04/draining_oregon_bill_to_fund_8.html.

Andrew Theen, Draining Oregon: Water bills dry up in Legislature, The Oregonian (June 29, 2017), http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2017/06/draining_oregon_water_bills_dr_1.html.

Nick Harrington & Peter Cook, Groundwater in Australia (The National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, 2014), http://www.groundwater.com.au/media/W1siZiIsIjIwMTQvMDMvMjUvMDFfNTFfMTNfMTMzX0dyb3VuZHdhdGVyX2luX0F1c3RyYWxpYV9GSU5BTF9mb3Jfd2ViLnBkZiJdXQ/Groundwater%20in%20Australia_FINAL%20for%20web.pdf.

State of Oregon, Governor’s Budget 2017-2019, http://www.oregon.gov/das/Financial/Documents/2017-19_gb.pdf, (last visited Mar. 27, 2017).

Ground Water Levels, Colorado Division of Water Resources, http://water.state.co.us/groundwater/Levels/Pages/HydroGeo.aspx, (last visited Mar. 27, 2017).

43 Or. Rev. Stat. § 520.025 (2016).

Image: Welcome sign for Harney County, Oregon. Flickr user Ken Lund, Creative Commons.


A historic agreement between the federal government, two states, and a private power company means that four dams on the Klamath River are potentially slated for decommissioning and removal. The Klamath River flows from Oregon through California before finally emptying into the Pacific Ocean. The amended Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (“KHSA”), signed on April 6th, 2016, may bring unexpected success to a decade-long negotiation involving big energy, tribal water rights, historic wildlife habitat preservation, and the intermingling of state and federal government regulatory agencies.

The first Klamath agreement was formally executed in 2010, and brought together the federal government, the state governments of Oregon and California, PacifiCorp, a large electric cooperative, and over forty additional signatories, including the Yurok and Karuk Tribes. Repeated congressional inaction halted the prior agreement’s implementation after Congress again failed to act before adjourning for the year on December 31, 2015.  On February 2, 2016, the Department of Interior, together with the Department of Commerce, California, Oregon, and PacifiCorp announced they agreed to amend the KHSA, which the parties eventually signed in April. The amended KHSA is the culmination of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement executed in 2010 and the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement signed in 2014.

In September, PacificCorp submitted the revised KHSA to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) for public review. On October 17, 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a letter to the Commission backing the dam removal.

Initially, the disputes in the Klamath Basin emerged as environmental and conservation groups (such as the Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, and Trout Unlimited) sought to restore 420 miles of historic salmon runs and riparian habitat. Moreover, these groups sought to eliminate the toxic algae blooms proliferating in the idle backwaters above the dams.

The most significant barrier to restoration of the river has been a dispute over the cost of retrofitting the aging infrastructure using modern technology and, alternatively, the cost of dismantling and removing the century-old structures and preparing the land to return to its original state.  According to several studies, the retrofit option would not only result in reduced electricity generation, but would also cost millions of dollars more than the removal.  However, the economic impacts extend beyond the estimated 450 million dollar cost of removal. A group of nearly one hundred, individual property owners have voiced opposition over the impact that dam removal would have on their lakefront property values adjacent to the reservoirs created by the dams.  Thus, a decrease in private property values could also accompany the dam removals.

Under the revised agreement, the states of California and Oregon will create a nonprofit entity, the Klamath River Renewal Corporation, which will take over Pacificorp’s current ownership of the dams.  This new owner will decommission and eventually remove the dams using existing federal authority. Both PacifiCorp ratepayers and a 2014 voter-approved water bond from the State of California has already generated funding for the decommission.

Notably, the most recent amendment lacks many government participation requirements from the original KHSA agreement.  The original agreement required Congress to pass legislation opening up significant funding, as well as the formal release of PacifiCorp from virtually any liability associated with the dam removal process. Congress’s inaction prompted the parties to exclude the Congressional participation requirement from the revised agreement.

In her recent letter of support to the FERC, Secretary Jewell called the plan a “unique opportunity to restore [a] magnificent [r]iver,” which  could help “re-write a painful chapter in our history” but still “[protect] the many interests in the Basin.” Secretary Jewell cited four key reasons for the Interior Department’s support: 1) the likely cost of removal is well below the funds that have already been obtained, 2) reservoir bottom sediment testing showed that chemical concentration levels were safe for release downstream, 3) the removal will result in the reopening of more than four hundred miles of salmon habitat, nearly doubling Chinook salmon production, and 4) the removal would improve water quality.

Although the agreement facilitates the removal of the dams, critics believe it fails to solve many of the problems it originally intended to fix, including resolving disputes over water rights, as well as effectively addressing specific allocations to farmers, wildlife refuges, and Native American tribes.  Notably, the Hoopa Valley Tribe did not sign the KHSA agreement amid concerns regarding certain provisions.  Further, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon did not sign the agreement, because its tribal members had yet to approve it through a popular vote.

While some issues may remain unresolved, the agreement represents an example of multiple entities and interests cooperating to effectuate the removal of the dams.  This agreement, if successful, may be an example and model for future change in the realm of water agreements. Curtis Knight, executive director of non-profit group California Trout expressed cautious optimism about the agreement, “[d]am removal is an essential first step, but certainly not the only step, in this process. California Trout remains committed to the comprehensive vision behind the hard-won Klamath Agreements, which identified a balanced approach to water use, environmental restoration, and community sustainability throughout the basin.”

DeWitt Patrick Mayfield

Image: PacifiCorp’s John C. Boyle Dam in Oregon, one of four dams slatted for decommission under the Agreement. Wikimedia user Bobjgalindo, Creative Commons.

Sources:

Bettina Boxall, Klamath River Dams Moving Toward Removal Despite Congressional Barriers, L.A. Times (Feb. 3, 2016), http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-klamath-river-dams-20160203-story.html.

Thadeus Greenson, Feds Announce New Klamath Accord to Remove Dams by 2020, North Coast Journal (Feb. 2, 2016), http://www.northcoastjournal.com/NewsBlog/archives/2016/02/02/feds-announce-new-klamath-accord-to-remove-dams-by-2020.

Paige Blankenbuehler, On The Klamath, A Surprising Win For River Advocates, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS (Feb. 5, 2016), https://www.hcn.org/articles/how-conservatives-handed-environmentalists-what-they-wanted-klamath-dam-removal-without-concessions.

Peter Firmite, Remove 4 Dams on Klamath, Study Urges, S.F. Chronicle (Apr. 4, 2013), http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/Remove-4-dams-on-Klamath-study-urges-4411365.php.

Press Release, Dep’t. of Interior, Parties Agree to New Path to Advance Klamath Agreement (Feb. 2, 2016), available at https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/parties-agree-new-path-advance-klamath-agreement.

Thadeus Greenson, UPDATED: California, Oregon Governors to Make ‘Major Announcement’ on Klamath, NORTH COAST JOURNAL (Apr. 4, 2016, 11:10 AM),  http://www.northcoastjournal.com/NewsBlog/archives/2016/04/04/california-oregon-governors-to-make-major-announcement-on-klamath.

Press Release, PacifiCorp, Parties Agree to New Path to Advance Klamath Agreement, (Feb. 2, 2016), http://www.pacificorp.com/about/newsroom/2016nrl/klamath-agreement.html.

Jonathan J. Cooper, Officials Sign Unusual Pact to Tear Down Hydroelectric Dams, ASSOCIATED PRESS (Apr. 6, 2016, 6:45 PM), http://bigstory.ap.org/article/235ba2f92ded43f3a8af971a52da17f2/officials-sign-unusual-pact-tear-down-klamath-dams.

Press Release, Dep’t. of Interior, Two New Klamath Basin Agreements Carve out Path for Dam Removal and Provide Key Benefits to Irrigators (last updated Apr. 14, 2016), available at https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/two-new-klamath-basin-agreements-carve-out-path-dam-removal-and-provide-key-benefits.

Dan Bacher, Tribes, State and Feds Sign Klamath Dam Removal Agreement, DAILY KOS (Apr. 7, 2016, 1:36 AM), http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2016/4/7/1511799/-Tribes-State-and-Feds-Sign-Klamath-Dam-Removal-Agreement.

Will Houston, ‘Milestone’ moment: Klamath River dam removal plan submitted to feds, TIMES STANDARD NEWS (Sept. 23, 2016, 10:41 PM), http://www.times-standard.com/article/NJ/20160923/NEWS/160929892.

David Smith, Jewell supports dam removal in FERC letter, THE SISKIYOU DAILY NEWS (Oct. 16, 2016 8:59 AM)  http://www.siskiyoudaily.com/article/20161019/NEWS/161019616.

Letter from Sally Jewell, Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior, to Kimberly D. Bose, Secretary, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Oct. 17, 2016), available at https://bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/heraldandnews.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/3/2f/32f4ad9f-9d5d-5656-a7c4-3a4d5d4eacc2/5806b3b857502.pdf.pdf.


Brown v. City of Eugene, 250 Or. App. 132 (2012) (holding that the term “water service” in a city charter granted a city council control over extensions of water service to end users but not over wholesale transfers of water).

In April 2010, the Eugene Water and Electric Board (“EWEB”) contracted with the City of Veneta (“Veneta”) for Veneta to purchase water from EWEB. The contract further specified that EWEB would not provide service directly to customers in Veneta, the sale would be characterized as wholesale, and the point of delivery would be within Eugene city limits. In accordance with Oregon statute, EWEB petitioned for judicial validation of the contract. The trial court subsequently granted motions to intervene by the City of Eugene (“Eugene”) and other interested parties (collectively “intervenors”).

Intervenors moved for summary judgment, arguing that the proposed contract between EWEB and Veneta violated section 44(3) of the Eugene Charter (“Charter”) that gives only the Eugene City Council the authority to approve sales of water. EWEB also moved for summary judgment. EWEB argued that other than the city council’s control over the extension of water service, the same provision of the Charter grants the EWEB full authority over the water utility, including wholesale transactions. The trial court granted EWEB’s motion for summary judgment and the intervenors appealed to the Court of Appeals of Oregon.

On appeal, intervenors contended that the term “water service” encompasses the wholesale sale of water to other entities, regardless of what entity distributes that water to end users. Thus, the Court of Appeals of Oregon sought to interpret the meaning of section 44(3) of the Charter.

First, the court established that section 44(3) provides EWEB with authority over wholesale water sales unless those sales constitute an extension of water service. The parties agreed on the meaning of extension, but the disagreement centered on the meaning of water service.

Second, the court determined the meaning of water service. The court discounted the varied and numerous dictionary meanings of service, and instead relied on what voters understood water service to mean when they voted for section 44(3) in 1976. From the voters’ perspective, the court stated, water service would have connoted the provision of water to the end user, consistent with EWEB’s argument. The court thought it unlikely that voters would have understood water service to encompass the wholesale transfer of water from one utility or entity to another.

Third, the court looked to the Charter provision’s context to discern a meaning of extension of water service. To do this, the court reviewed the statutory framework that existed at the time of the Charter vote. The court found that in 1969 the Oregon state legislature created three local government boundary commissions and used the word “service” in a way that enforced EWEB’s definition and understanding of service. Therefore statutory references to service in the 1969 legislation reflected the general understanding of service to individuals and entities, not to wholesale utilities and municipalities.

Fourth, the court reviewed the charter’s enactment history, which included a statement in the voters’ guide that the city council’s authority over the extension of water service provided it with a tool in land use planning and control of urban sprawl. The court stated that its meaning of water service would still provide the city council with some measure of control over land use and urban sprawl.

Accordingly, the court held that EWEB had authority to enter into the contract with Veneta without first obtaining approval from the Eugene City Council and that the trial court properly validated the contract.