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Oregon irrigators butt heads with cities over water bills

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Senate bills 865 and 866 would impose new notification and discharge permission requirements.

EO MEDIA GROUP - A sugar beet field in Eastern Oregon is irrigated in June. Supporters say two bills under consideration by the Oregon Legislature will help prevent urban encroachment from damaging irrigation facilities and water supplies.SALEM — Irrigation districts are butting heads with city governments in Oregon over proposed legislation that's intended to avert conflicts over housing development and stormwater discharge.

Supporters of Senate bills 865 and 866 say the two bills will help prevent urban encroachment from damaging irrigation facilities and water supplies.

"We need this tool so we can avoid fights," said Marc Thalacker, manager of the Three Sisters Irrigation District, during a March 9 legislative hearing.

Cities and counties would have to provide notice about impending property subdivisions to irrigation districts, drainage districts and similar entities under SB 865.

Districts shouldn't be surprised by new developments, said Brent Stevenson, manager of the Santiam Water Control District.

"It will only save money in the long run for others," Stevenson said of SB 865.

When farmland is converted to urban uses, unintended consequences to irrigation systems can arise, said April Snell, executive director of the Oregon Water Resources Congress.

Cities and counties can ward off such problems by getting input from irrigation districts before approving a plat, or map of the new parcels, she said.

"It's really for the ability of districts to provide the information," Snell said.

Irrigation districts can encounter serious financial impacts from urban encroachment, while disruptions to water infrastructure can also hurt urban residents, said Mark Landauer, lobbyist for the Special Districts Association of Oregon.

"People tend not to be very happy when their basements get flooded or things of that nature," he said.

Under SB 866, cities would have to take reasonable steps to ensure stormwater discharged into irrigation canals meets federal and state water quality standards.

Cities would also be held liable for discharing stormwater into canals unless they receive permission from an irrigation district or implement plans to avoid affecting the district.

Proponents of SB 866 say that irrigation districts may not have the facilities to handle additional water from municipal runoff, potentially breaching canals and causing flooding.

Farmers are also under increasing scrutiny regarding food safety and environmental impacts, so they can face liabilities from pollutants found in stormwater, supporters say.

The League of Oregon Cities and several municipal governments oppose both of the bills, arguing they give excessive authority to irrigation districts while imposing unrealistic conditions on cities.

Opponents claim SB 865 is unnecessarily duplicative of existing procedures that many cities already have in place, so it's unclear how the new requirements would affect these procedures.

The plat approval process is also a late stage for irrigation district to provide review, which is more appropriate during land use planning, opponents say.

As for SB 866, cities would effectively be responsible for all the rain that falls within their boundaries and potentially collect and divert that stormwater, said Tracy Rutten, intergovernmental affairs associate at the League of Oregon Cities.

The bill is "incredibly broad" and would subject cities to more stringent restrictions than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Rutten said.

Stormwater can cross multiple government jurisdictions, which would greatly complicated any permission agreement under SB 866, said David Sawyer, city administrator of Turner, Ore.

That permission can also be revoked under the bill, thus requiring the development of a plan for stormwater to have "zero effect" on irrigation district, he said.

"No impact is a blank check and it's a little scary," Sawyer said.