Bipartisan duo unveil $250 million drought package for ‘families, farms and fish’

The package would aim to tackle water problems before they become emergencies, prepare for long-term water scarcity and leverage federal investment

By: - March 16, 2023 6:14 pm

Klamath County has struggled with persistent drought. A report from the Secretary of State’s Office found Oregon agencies in charge of ensuring water quality and quantity are understaffed, underfunded and lack coordination and planning for the future, compromising the state’s water security. A new drought package from bipartisan lawmakers hopes to tackle these issues. (Courtesy of the governor’s office)

UPDATED: March 17, 2023 at 11:15 a.m.

A bipartisan duo from opposite sides of Oregon are proposing a $250 million drought package to tackle water scarcity, drought and water contamination. 

Reps. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, and Mark Owens, R-Crane, hope to stop the state’s next water emergency and ensure water supplies for future generations.

Together with their staff — who spent hundreds of hours and several all-nighters poring over years of state water reports and plans — they came up with a 35-page package of 18 legislative proposals aiming to protect water for “families, farms and fish.” 

The two lawmakers presented the package Thursday to the House Committee on Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources, and Water. 

The package aims to to break a cycle of water emergencies, prepare for long-term water scarcity and take advantage of historic federal funding for water infrastructure by providing matching state funds. 

For families, the package would aim to protect drinking water sources, provide technical assistance to smaller drinking water systems, help domestic well users with repairs or getting connected to a water system, and — most specifically — address groundwater contamination in Morrow and Umatilla Counties. Nitrate from agriculture and food processing has polluted an aquifer that thousands of well users draw from in the two counties. Under House Bill 3124, Morrow and Umatilla counties would get $1 million and the nonprofit Oregon Rural Action would get $250,000 to continue to coordinate their emergency drinking water response, including well-testing and filters, and to study the feasibility of connecting  well-users to a community water system. 

The package also includes portions of House Bill 3368, which would direct the Oregon Water Resources Department to study how much water is available, and how much has been overdrawn, in Oregon’s 20 water basins.

For farms, the package would help producers protect themselves against losses and invest in efficient water infrastructure. It also includes a $3.6 million investment for Oregon State University to develop drought-tolerant crops.

For fish, components of the plan include funding fish passage projects, replanting stream sites and restoring watersheds, post-fire landscapes and flood plains.

Of the $250 million, more than $25 million would go to planning, coordination, building agency capacity, data collection and analysis and community outreach and engagement. Another $20 million would go toward drinking water security; $55 million to water projects related to agriculture; $38 million to water projects for fish and $111 million in water infrastructure investments. 

The state could use some of those funds to bring in a portion of the $50 billion available for water projects under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in Nov. 2021. Several projects eligible for partial federal funding are “shovel ready,” according to Owens. “All they’re missing is the state match,” he said. 

A follow-up hearing on the drought package hasn’t been scheduled yet, but Helm expects to schedule it in the next week. The bills in the drought package will need a committee vote by April 4 to move forward.

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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.