Editorial: Don’t shut down water right transfers


WaterWatch of Oregon wants to add a dramatic new requirement to any water right transfer. And WaterWatch’s proposal — in the form of Senate Bill 425 — could be like a dam blocking any change in water rights, including more water for growth in population.

That’s not good.

Water in Oregon is locked up. Anybody who wants to use water almost always has to get a permit or a water right from the state’s Water Resources Department.

And the Water Resources Department is a stickler. Water rights are specifically restricted to certain terms and conditions — where the water is used, where the water is diverted and the use of the water.

A water right holder can’t make changes to any of those things without filing a transfer application with the department.

Under the existing law, an application basically must not injure another water right.

SB 425 would require that there would also be no loss of in-stream habitat for native fish or native wildlife in streams with no water right.

The requirement is potent. It’s not like WaterWatch asked that a transfer “does not pose a significant detrimental impact to habitat” or “minimizes the negative effects to the maximum extent practicable.” Those would be tough enough to sort out. WaterWatch’s requirement is “a loss.”

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, the bill’s sponsor, said he does not necessarily endorse the bill and he is not familiar with its details. He introduced it as a courtesy to WaterWatch.

WaterWatch does know why it wants the bill.

“It will allow the state to prevent new harm from occurring to our rivers and streams that is inconsistent with how much Oregonians value our fish and wildlife, as reflected in our modern environmental laws,” Jim McCarthy, the group’s communications director, wrote in an email.

“We believe the numbers of applications denied as a result of this bill will be very small compared to the numbers that move forward.”

We are not so sure. This bill gives opponents a powerful tool to stop any change in a water right.

Loss of instream habitat is not defined in the bill. It just says loss. One drop less is arguably a loss in habitat.

WaterWatch told us it is open to amendments to the bill. That’s a good start.

Oregonians value fish and wildlife. They also value water for population growth. Water for fish and wildlife should not automatically trump all other uses.