Editorial: Water department must go the extra mile

Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, is mad. A proposed new rule from the state’s Water Resources Department, he says, was effectively sprung on the region without the sort of public notice that generates full discussion of an extremely sensitive subject.

The county, in a second year of drought, is one of nine in the state to receive an emergency declaration from the governor earlier this year. The declaration allows for greater flexibility in managing water to ensure that there’s enough for people and animals.

Water Resources did just that with a temporary rule that expires Sept. 27. That rule cannot be extended unless the department begins work to create a permanent rule, which it has done. And that’s where Whitsett and the department begin to butt heads.

Water — who gets it and when — is THE issue in the Klamath Basin, where there’s not always enough of the stuff for all who want it. It took years to work out a settlement aimed at keeping all sides at least willing to go along with division of water, an accomplishment that came only this year.

The current drought adds a new wrinkle. Users with senior rights, established by the court, stand first in line when there’s not enough water to go around, and those with lesser rights may have to give up use of wells and surface water as a result. The new rule proposed by the Water Resources Department would give junior users the right to continue taking water for human consumption and livestock.

As the law requires, the department published notification of its proposed rule in the state’s online Oregon Bulletin. What it apparently did not do is make sure that Whitsett and other public officials in the county were told specifically about the changes, nor about a public hearing on the proposal that was held in late July.

The department must do better than that. Water is the key to livelihood in the Klamath Basin, and its citizens must be given notice about potential changes, even if that means doing more than the law requires.