Larger rights


Quite a few people probably breathed easier after an Oregon Court of Appeals court rejected a proposal from a water utility business to draw water from the McKenzie River in western Oregon, to be used for utilities in smaller communities in the area.

It’s not that it’s a bad use for the water. And for all of western Oregon’s soggy reputation, solid water supplies are sometimes sketchy in many Oregon communities, even in the western area not far from the Pacific coast.

The reasons for the denial are a little simpler and more subtle than for, say, a water bottler.

The water would be going to a local area. Some of the ground water area communities have been using has been contaminated. Something not too different from what the businessman was proposing probably is in the future of the area.

But it needs more careful development. A water right can only be granted, under state law, if it can be put to use within five years; this project would take longer than that.

Specificity was the key behind the challenge to the use by WaterWatch of Oregon. That Portland group has been dogging the McKenzie application ever since 2010, saying it was contrary to the public interest on a number of grounds.

It noted in a statement, “The company proposed to lock up a large amount of McKenzie River water, but failed to identify any committed customers, could not complete the water development project in the time allowed, and failed to apply for needed land use approvals for developing the water project. The applicant also challenged the fish protection conditions recommended by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and proposed by the Oregon Water Resources Department.”

The developer also had an existing water right which was not yet developed, giving WaterWatch basis for pointing out that the business didn’t necessarily need the new right to pursue the project.

(A case in North Dakota emerging this month highlighted the western reality of a good many water rights sitting around the country essentially unused, and possibly forfeit through non-use, something may property owners across many retgions may have good reason to check out.)

The group also said, “The permit application drew considerable local media attention and inspired community concern regarding one of the public’s most valuable resources – water – in one of the state’s most iconic waterways. The harmful proposal threatened a river prized by fishermen, boaters, and nature enthusiasts from around the world. The McKenzie’s renowned beauty, along with the fish and wildlife it supports, in turn help sustain jobs and economic activity in the region.”

There is potential for review by the Oregon Supreme Court if an appeal is requested within 35 days.

But odds are the decision is in. And that sets a procedural bar for large-scale applicants for water rights, for very large projects, for some time into the future.

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