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Stumbling search lands on old hand as new Oregon water boss

Ivan Gall has been with the Oregon Water Resources Department for more than 25 years.
Courtesy of the Oregon Water Resources Department
Ivan Gall has been with the Oregon Water Resources Department for more than 25 years.

Emails show the governor plans to send Ivan Gall for state Senate confirmation May 29.

After a nearly yearlong, nationwide search for the next boss to lead the agency managing Oregon’s water supply, state officials announced Friday that Gov. Tina Kotek has chosen a veteran bureaucrat whose appointment could face political pushback.

Ivan Gall has been with the Oregon Water Resources Department for more than 25 years, serving as a hydrogeologist, manager and senior administrator. Gall is currently the agency’s interim deputy director. His tenure has lasted through some of Oregon’s most notable groundwater crises, as first reported by the Oregonian in 2016. Gall was the state’s groundwater manager from 2011 to 2016.

The director of the Oregon Water Resources Department is in charge of regulating water rights as the state grapples with drought, climate change and the consequences of itspermissive past, when regulators approved wells across the state that pump far more groundwater than nature recharges each year.

Now, the agency is facing powerful interest groups as it forges ahead with new, politically-fraught rules meant to better protect groundwater in the future. After passing over his application during a first round of recruitment, Kotek is backing Gall to lead the state through all this.

In a statement sent to OPB Monday afternoon, Kotek said “our state must prioritize policies that will build resiliency for Oregon’s natural and working landscapes in the face of accelerating impacts from a changing climate,” and that she believes Gall is “ready and committed to take on this charge.”

“My advisors will work closely with Mr. Gall, water users, community partners and the Legislature to advance a targeted and strategic policy agenda to ensure the next Director is equipped with the tools needed to begin this journey to more proactively manage our publicly owned waters to meet the State’s water security and resiliency goals,” Kotek said.

Water agency staff got the news through a May 3 email, obtained by OPB, which includes a statement from Kotek’s senior natural resource policy advisor Geoff Huntington.

“The next Director will play a proactive and pivotal role in shaping water management in this state,” Huntington wrote. “[Gall’s] extensive water policy and management experience positions him well to undertake this important work with due urgency.”

Kotek will be submitting Gall for confirmation by the Oregon Senate on May 29, Huntington told staff.

Gall did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Lawmakers could try to block the appointment, and a key Republican leader for water policy said Monday that he was surprised by the governor’s choice.

“I was hopeful for the last couple of years that we need someone outside of the department, someone to change the custom and culture of the department,” said Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane.

Owens, a hay farmer from Harney County, has become an advocate for more rigorous water regulation, ever since his home county became a case study in the damage caused whenregulators approve too many wells.

Gall initially applied for the top agency job in August 2023, but wasn’t picked. Emails show state officials weren’t impressed with the candidate pool in that hiring process. The governor’s office announced it would hire an outside recruitment firm, and re-advertised the position last year.

OPB requested records about that second round of recruitment two months ago, but the Governor’s office has not yet filled that request.

The top position at the agency is currently held by an interim leader, Doug Woodcock, who did not apply during the first round of recruitment. Woodcock has been in place since former water agency Director Tom Byler resigned in September 2022.

Copyright 2024 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Emily Cureton Cook is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Emily is the former producer of the Jefferson Exchange on JPR and has contributed award-winning programming to Georgia Public Broadcasting. Emily is a graduate of the University of Texas in Austin where she earned degrees in history, studio art and Russian.