Lawmakers vote to protect water, prevent wildfires and guard against the effects of climate change

Democrats and Republicans agreed to eliminate part of a climate resilience package on strengthening emissions reduction targets to get a proposal passed

By: - June 24, 2023 7:59 pm

A wildfire mitigation map that’s being redone is supposed to help homeowners protect their residences from wildfires. (Oregon Department of Forestry/Flickr)

Several key environmental bills that would help communities guard against the effect of climate change, protect groundwater and prevent wildfires passed the Oregon Legislature and are on their way to Gov. Tina Kotek’s desk for final approval.

They include a proposal to more strictly regulate industrial livestock operations and another to remake a statewide wildfire risk map following public outcry.

A $61 million climate resilience package required last-minute negotiations between House Democrats and Republicans who disagreed over a single word that would have strengthened the state’s goals for reducing climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions.  

Climate resilience

Lawmakers combined 15 proposals to help communities, property owners and businesses respond to the impact of climate change in House Bill 3409. The bill passed the Senate on Saturday, largely along party lines with an 18-7 vote. Among Republicans, only Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, endorsed it. Five other Republicans were not there to vote: They had unexcused absences.

The 122-page package includes $61 million for community-based renewable energy projects, building code updates to save energy and incentives to help Oregonians and businesses take advantage of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Much of the federal money available under the two programs for climate resilient infrastructure projects requires states to match a portion of that funding.

It faced backlash last week from Republicans, who claimed a late word change in one portion that reiterated the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction goals tried to make the goals state “policy” rather than an “aspiration” of the state.

Former Gov. Kate Brown established those goals by executive order in 2020 after Republicans blocked legislative attempts to set climate policy in 2019 and 2020. They include a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. Republicans feared that stating the goals as “policy” rather than “aspiration” could penalize Oregon businesses if the emission goals weren’t met.

“While we are focused on one word, we believe this one word will make all of the difference as state agencies carry out the rule-making process,” House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, previously told the Capital Chronicle in an email.

As a compromise, House Democrats and Republicans agreed to strike the entire portion of the bill on the state’s climate goals. 

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, told reporters Tuesday that it was easier to take that section out and allow lawmakers more time to vet that language during the 2024 short legislative session. 

“It’s just easier to say ‘Hey, let’s press pause on this,’” Rayfield said. 

In a text message, Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said the state’s emission reduction goals remain intact and that lawmakers will work on an agreement on language going forward. 

Large livestock operations

On another measure, lawmakers voted mostly along party lines to pass Senate Bill 85 which adds new limits on large confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The Senate passed the proposal Tuesday 17-8 and the House followed on Wednesday with a 31-19 vote. Two representatives, Susan McLain of Hillsboro and Ken Helm of Beaverton, were the only Democrats who voted “no.”

The bill would require anyone who wants to open an industrial animal operation or expand an existing one to submit water plans to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, detailing where water was sourced and how operators would guarantee safe use. Operators using more than 12,000 gallons of groundwater per day would have to report their use to the Oregon Water Resources Department.

Operators also would need to pass new inspections to guarantee public safety and animal welfare and allow local governments greater opportunity to weigh in on the location.

Previously, such operations have been allowed to use groundwater for animals without reporting use and without the need to secure water rights. 

The bill marked a response to a growing concern around the Santiam River southeast of Salem, where several new large confined chicken operations have sprung up in the last few years. 

During the past two months, the proposal garnered more than 1,000 written letters of testimony, more than 200 of which opposed the measure and more than 800 supported it. Those opposed were farmers and members of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association who said they already follow strict regulations and that adding more would burden them economically. Those in support included public health and environmental organizations who said the regulations would protect communities air and water quality from the growth of industrial livestock farms.

Wildfire preparedness, prevention 

Senate Bill 80 passed with bipartisan support in the Senate on Tuesday, 23-2, and in the House on Wednesday by 37-12. It would fix a statewide wildfire risk map that received substantial backlash after it was released last summer. 

Experts at the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon State University created the map following legislation passed in 2021 that directed them to analyze wildfire risk factors throughout the state and inform residents in high-risk zones.

The idea was to support wildfire mitigation efforts and encourage property owners to fortify their homes and land from fire. But many residents said they were surprised to find they lived in high-risk zones and that wildfire prevention efforts they’d already undertaken hadn’t been included in the state’s risk assessment. Many feared the maps would increase their property insurance premiums or cause them to lose insurance coverage. 

Kevin Cassidy, a property owner in Baker County near the Elkhorn Mountains in Eastern Oregon told the Capital Chronicle in August 2022 that his 20-year old property insurance policy was not renewed because the wildfire risk map had placed him in an area of extreme risk. 

“Is it possible for me to have a fire out here? Under the right conditions, there are a lot of places that are susceptible,” Cassidy told the Capital Chronicle. “Is it extreme as it exists? No.”

Senate Bill 80 directs the department to redo the map with more community engagement and collaboration with residents in high-risk zones and with county governments. It also creates a grant program to help property owners fortify their homes and properties against wildfires. 


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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.