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Oregon (Finally) Begins to Integrate Water and Land Use Planning

Mark Twain’s famous quote: "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,” continues to resonate today. In the American West, different water regimes have prompted lawsuits, mayhem and confusion. In the land use planning and development arena, conflicts and complications over water availability and water quality have reached a crescendo. Recently however, Oregon began to move toward a comprehensive approach of water planning, including modest moves to integrate water resource planning and regulation with its land use regime.

On June 22nd of this year, the Oregon Departments of Water Resources, Environmental Quality, Fish and Wildlife, and Agriculture released a draft of Oregon’s Integrated Water Resources Strategy, which the Oregon Water Resources Commission adopted on August 3rd. This document attempts to bring together public agencies whose views, regulatory priorities and constituencies concerning water are so diverse that they may be said to come from different planets. Support of the current “prior appropriation” system of allocating and regulating water based on the time of application largely binds the agricultural community together, while pressure from environmentalists and water quality regulatory agencies motivates them to push for mandatory allocation of sufficient clean water to accommodate the needs for humans and other species. While much of Western Oregon has sufficient rainfall and snowmelt to meet water demands most years, it is not always the case and it is certainly not so for the generally more arid regions of Eastern Oregon. Another way of understanding the water dilemma is to acknowledge that though there is a lot of water in western Oregon, that water supply is not stored so that there is not the right amount of water in the right place when it is needed most, namely hot summer months. Moreover, the struggle for sufficient water in Eastern Oregon is being replicated in the wetter parts of the state, as overall water demands increase.

One of the many difficulties with planning for sufficient amounts of clean water to accommodate the many types of land uses regulated in local land use plans is that there is only a limited amount of integrated planning that brings the water resource professionals in contact with state and local land use planners. When the Oregon land use system was devised in 1973, water considerations were often relegated to a determination that there would be sufficient water for future uses, so no integrated system to assure there would be sufficient water overall. For example, planning commissions adopt findings with reference to a water certificate, although the record is absent any hard evidence that the water source exists. Brief mentions are made about water in deciding which natural resources to protect (such as stream corridors, wetlands, and wild and scenic rivers), meeting water quality standards, and providing for adequate public facilities and services. While water is a guiding principle in 11 of our Statewide Planning Goals, the depth of these efforts to integrate water and land use has been fairly shallow and LCDC does not demand much of local governments or other state agencies that deal with water.

The Integrated Strategy seeks to change that approach. The strategy seeks to coordinate state and local government management consistent with local plans. This sets the stage for “place-based” integrated water management and planning. The Strategy notes the fact that only one state agency has updated its coordination program to assure that its plans and actions are consistent with the statewide planning goals and local plans. It notes the impacts of climate change, which will require both additional research and the use of adaption and resilience strategies in future planning efforts. Finally, the strategy shows the need to deal with contaminants in our rivers which threaten public health and the need for comprehensive improvements to the ecology of rivers and streams.

This is not the first time that the relationship between water and land use planning has been discussed. The Byzantine manner in which water is allocated, used and adjudicated is perhaps loved only by certain lawyers who specialize in the area. However, the relationship of water planning and land use planning does require further integration. Farms and forests must have sufficient water to assure their significant role in the economy of the state. Similarly, humans, land animals and fish must have sufficient water to thrive. Only when we understand how to deal with these water needs and allocate water for our residential, commercial and industrial uses at the same time will Oregon be able to have done an adequate planning effort. The Integrated Water Resources Strategy is a good start. Implementation, however, will require adequate funding and buy-in from all state agencies and local governments.

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