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Oregon Governor Preserves Dam Money, Irrigation Bill At Veto Deadline

<p>Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks to reporters in her ceremonial office at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks


Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks to reporters in her ceremonial office at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

UPDATE (Aug. 9, 4:57 p.m PT) — Gov. Kate Brown on Friday reversed course on two controversial vetoes, after a week in which state lawmakers, local officials and advocacy groups had urged her to reconsider. 

The governor’s office revealed Friday morning that Brown would allow $4 million in state money to the city of Newport, which will use the money to jump-start a dam replacement project that’s been in the works for years.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Brown decided not to veto a bill that will ease rules for farmers clearing out irrigation ditches, her office confirmed. That move was certain to please many in rural portions of the state, but spurred a furious reaction from some environmental groups.

The governor had signaled on Sunday that she was strongly considering both items. Friday was Brown’s deadline for vetoing bills from the 2019 legislative session.

Money For Newport Dam Project Preserved

“I am pleased and relieved with the news,” said state Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, who had urged Brown not to veto money for Newport’s dam project. “I am grateful that the governor really took a hard look at our situation in Newport.”

Others were far less enthused.

“This should be viewed as a sellout in terms of the environment,” said Bob Sallinger, of the Audubon Society of Portland, who’d urged Brown to veto the irrigation ditch bill. “She had an opportunity to do the right thing, she clearly saw that opportunity, and for whatever reason has decided to proceed anyway.”

The city of Newport gets its drinking water from reservoirs created by two dams that could collapse in an earthquake. According to state and city officials, the soil under the dams is at risk of liquefying. Officials contend the dams are “two of the top three most critical, high-hazard dam projects in the state.”

For years, the city has sought backing to take on a major project: replacing the two dams with a single dam. That project could cost upwards of $70 million.

Brown said she wasn’t convinced the $4 million would be best spent in Newport. The governor’s proposed budget included money to better catalogue the state’s dams and the risks they pose, but lawmakers passed on that proposal.

“I intend to line-item veto this project because we need to study all of Oregon’s dams across the state that may need critical repair,” Brown said in her Aug. 4 statement.

But in a signing letter to Secretary of State Bev Clarno, Brown said she’d since learned more about Newport’s yearslong efforts and that a veto could imperil millions in federal grants.

“I understand their efforts to partner with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to secure up to $15 million in federal support for this project,” Brown wrote, “and I am concerned that my veto would significantly impede these efforts.”

Members of Oregon’s congressional delegation had taken an interest in Brown’s potential veto. Gomberg said he got a call from U.S. Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader’s office about the matter and that he’d had discussions with the office of U.S. Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who is expected to tour the Newport dams in coming days.

Schrader’s office declined comment on whether the congressman had spoken to Brown on the matter. Merkley’s office did not return requests for comment.

Gomberg and another lawmaker, Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, said Brown called them Thursday with news of the decision.

“I think enough people got her attention about why this was the right thing to do as opposed to complaining and getting uptight,” Roblan said Friday.

While Brown will allow the Newport money to move, she’ll appoint a dam safety task force that will help identify funding for all of the state’s 72 “high-hazard” dams.

Ditch-Clearing Bill Ruffles Feathers

The governor also changed her mind on vetoing House Bill 2437, which eases rules for how farmers clear drainage ditches near their fields.

Brown had been considering the veto at the behest of a coalition of environmental groups, who believe it undermined the state’s ability to protect some state wetlands. But she faced bipartisan pressure from lawmakers and rancor in rural Oregon.

“I have heard from numerous organizations that this bill goes too far,” Brown wrote in a signing letter. At the same time, she acknowledged, she’d heard from a wide swath of groups that “the current system is completely unworkable and unused, and that is the greater risk to wetlands and wildlife habitat.”

HB 2437 is the result of a yearslong discussion over regulation of farmers clearing out irrigation ditches adjacent to their fields. Because many farm fields in the Willamette Valley are technically classified as wetlands — and ditches are treated as “intermittent streams” — farmers have been required to obtain a state permit to clear out ditches and to place the material they remove on their fields.

According to the Oregon Farm Bureau, many farmers aren’t aware of the requirement and don’t get permits. That’s led to a situation where state officials fine several farmers a year, according to Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy with the farm bureau.

“It’s not a problem that has reached critical mass with our members,” Cooper said on Monday. “Through this bill was the first time some people realized they didn’t have an exemption.”

Still, she said, applying to a permit under current law can take dozens of hours and might require farmers to hire a consultant to help.

Under HB 2437, farmers would need to give notice that they were going to clear an irrigation ditch, but would not need a permit unless they planned to move more than 3,000 cubic yards of material over a five-year period — a 60-fold increase from the current 50-cubic-yard threshold.

Cooper said that the compromise was reached by a workgroup made up of industry and environmental interests, and blessed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike. The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited Oregon, which had hands in negotiating the bill, ultimately took a neutral stance.

But other groups have serious concerns. A coalition that included the groups WaterWatch Oregon, the Sierra Club’s Oregon Chapter, the Audubon Society of Portland and more argued the bill is overly broad and could lead to activity well beyond drainage ditches.

“It is a bill that could have widespread effects on our rivers, streams and wetlands,” the coalition wrote in a veto request to Brown.

Kimberley Priestley, a senior policy analyst at WaterWatch, said Friday the group had no issue with making it easier for farmers to clear their ditches. But she worried that HB 2437 opened the state up to other consequences, like farmers removing material from stream beds in Eastern Oregon, and that it cuts federal regulators out of the process.

“It takes away a huge level of protection,” Priestley said, speaking before she’d learned of Brown’s decision not to veto the bill. She argued that altering Oregon laws is especially fraught at a time when the federal government is also rolling back environmental protections.

“Basically it’s up to state laws, where the laws are good, to provide a backstop to what President Trump is going to do,” Priestley said. “This is like a double whammy.”

Sallinger was more acerbic, after learning from Brown’s staff the governor had taken a veto off the table.

“This was a complete capitulation to the farm bureau,” Sallinger said, calling the decision “pure politics.” “There were ways to get at the issues the farm bureau was raising without weakening environmental protections.”

Sallinger said Jason Miner, a staffer in the governor’s office, had assured him that environmental groups would have the opportunity to seek stricter protections when state agencies develop rules pertaining to the bill.

“To me, to have them say that is almost insulting,” he said. “Don’t make us work backward to regain protections that we already had in place.”

Brown wound up disagreeing. In her letter, she said that concerns like Priestley’s were “slightly” outweighed by the fact that the current system is unworkable. “Under this legislation we would have much more data to analyze practices and effects to inform future policymakers,” she wrote.

Brown also noted that the bill was bipartisan and said agencies had assured her that “the new approach may reach more farmers and may result in more protective conditions being followed … .”

The decision to veto the bill could include political considerations. The Oregon Farm Bureau and other organizations representing rural interests were key opponents of a climate change bill that failed in this year’s legislative session. If the governor opted to veto a bill those groups support, she risked further alienating them, even as lawmakers prepare to take another shot at imposing a cap-and-trade system to regulate carbon emissions in the state.

In a nod to environmentalists’ concerns, Brown said she’ll direct the Department of State Lands to establish administrative rules that “help guide where these activities should place” and protect streams.

The governor followed through with two other vetoes she’d given notice on — a $500,000 expenditure meant to help eastern Oregon counties plan for expanding their urban growth boundaries and a $5 million transfer from the Oregon Medical Board to the general fund.

The governor also directed the state’s Department of Administrative Services to hold on to $400,000 legislators approved for a James Beard Public Market in Portland. The project has languished in recent years, with numerous false starts. Brown is directing officials not to disburse the latest allocation “until there is a signed agreement with a definitive construction timeline.”

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.