Oregon groups urge Kotek to increase environmental funding, staff

About 240 people joined a conversation Friday about state environmental issues hosted by Gov.-elect Tina Kotek’s transition team

By: - December 9, 2022 4:21 pm
The Tillamook State Forest as seen from the summit of King's Mountain. Bare patches mark spots that have been clearcut. (Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr)

The Tillamook State Forest as seen from the summit of King’s Mountain. Bare patches mark spots that have been clearcut. (Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr)

Environmental and industry groups are urging Gov.-elect Tina Kotek to increase staff and budgets to tackle water, wildfire, agriculture, climate and energy concerns in the years ahead.

About 240 people joined a video call hosted Friday by Kotek’s transition team intended to help the incoming governor prepare her first natural resources budget to present to the state Legislature Feb. 1.

The budget will cover needs for 14 state agencies for the next biennium, including the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the Water Resources Department, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Forestry.

The requests for more money for natural resources programs come as legislative budget analysts warned legislators may need to cut spending. Budget documents released this week show a nearly $560 million gap between the money available to spend and the $30.7 billion it would take to continue funding programs at the same rates as the 2021-23 budget.

Nora Apter, climate program director for the nonprofit Oregon Environmental Council, suggested other departments should be included in conversations around the state’s natural resources budgets. 

“When it comes to climate change, all agencies should be focused on this,” Apter told the transition team. 

Representatives from local utilities boards, environmental groups and industry groups said they wanted the state to do more to leverage federal funding that depends on the state providing matching funds.

Dylan Cruz, director of strategy and government affairs at the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest, said Oregon could be getting a lot more federal money for conservation projects than it currently is. Some of the funding available to states under the federal Inflation Reduction Act require states to match 25% to 50% in order to get the maximum amount available.

Cruz also asked that Kotek offer $500 million in continued funding to the Oregon Water Resources Department to maintain agency staffing and capacity. 

J.R Cook, a farmer and founder of the Northeast Oregon Water Association, asked that the state go after federal money under the Inflation Reduction Act that could pay for groundwater recharge testing that he believes could address ongoing nitrate pollution in the aquifer beneath Morrow and Umatilla Counties. Groundwater recharge would involve injecting Columbia River water into the aquifer in order to dilute the nitrate-rich aquifer. Nitrate is unsafe to drink at high levels and over sustained periods. Many in the counties who rely on wells for their drinking water are left to buy expensive filters or bottled water. 

Jim Doherty, Morrow County Commissioner, asked that the state “not take its foot off the gas” when it comes to providing support to people in the region who do not have safe drinking water.

Peggy Lynch of the League of Women Voters of Oregon said the organization wanted natural resource agencies to play a larger role in housing issues in the state, including in high-risk fire zones and in areas where safe drinking water is a concern. 

When it comes to wildfire prevention, at least a dozen group representatives asked that Kotek continue to ensure investment in Senate Bill 762, the state’s $220 million landmark wildfire bill passed in 2021 to help improve preparedness and response to wildfire. 

Pam Hardy of the Western Environmental Law Center said her organization was concerned that the Oregon Department of Forestry does not have the budget or staff capacity to fully address future issues around climate change and wildfire in the state. 

Oriana Magnera, manager of energy, climate and transportation programs at Verde, a Portland-based nonprofit focused on increasing access to green infrastructure and transportation for low-income people and people of color, said the state needs to do a better job with outreach. Magnera said many don’t know about rebates, grants and investments available. 

Shannon Walton-Clark, representing the nonprofit Forth, praised Oregon’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Program implemented under Gov. Kate Brown but expressed concerns that it was running out of money.

The program, which offers up to $7,500 back on the purchase or lease of new or used electric vehicles, is facing a $30 million budget shortfall. 

“We support and strongly advocate for the inclusion of that $30 million within the governor-elect’s budget and within the agency’s budget to keep this program solvent and to ensure that Oregonians across the state have equitable access to an electric vehicle,” Walton-Clark said. 

Many expressed gratitude for work that had been done under Brown’s administration and their desire to invest more in the state’s natural resource management and conservation under Kotek.

Harmony Burright, Water Policy Advisor to Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, said Owens wanted to see more staff and more money flow into the state’s natural resource agencies. 

“Investments in natural resources are investments in rural Oregon,” Burright said.

CORRECTION: Shannon Walton-Clark works for the nonprofit Forth, not Ford. 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.