The Oregonian: Washington and Clackamas water agencies tell Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden to protect watersheds

by Jeff Mapes, The Oregonian
Published August 31, 2013

Water agencies in Washington and Clackamas counties say they want stronger protections for their watersheds in a congressional bill aimed at boosting logging on federal lands in western Oregon.

The water agencies, which serve about 800,000 residents in the Portland area, want additional protections for forestlands in their watersheds, including bigger streamside buffers on logging.

Most of the debate about a federal House bill to dramatically revamp the management of some 2.8 million acres of federal forestlands has focused on the economic and environmental impacts on rural areas west of the Cascades. But the fate of the heavily lobbied bill covering the old Oregon & California Railroad lands could also wind up directly affecting urban residents.

While Portland's Bull Run Watershed is completely off-limits to logging and other activities, water managers in the suburban counties say that isn't true in the rivers and streams where they collect their water.

"Whatever changes come with this legislation have the potential to impact a lot of people," said Kimberly Swan, water resource manager for the Clackamas River Water Providers.

That's a consortium of several water agencies serving the vast majority of the county's residents. The agencies draw from the Clackamas River, which has several O&C parcels in its watershed.

Swan's agency, along with five others in the Portland, Salem and Eugene areas, recently sent similarly worded letters to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is working on drafting his own O&C bill.

"We encourage you to consider conservation, or more protective management of areas important for drinking water on federal lands as part of a coordinated effort to maintain and enhance drinking water quality and as a way to reduce treatment costs downstream," Swan said in her letter to Wyden.

In Washington County, the Joint Water Commission delivers water to about 400,000 customers from the Trask and Tualatin River watersheds, which also contain O&C lands. Kevin Hanway, the commission's general manager and water director for the city of Hillsboro, also suggested several changes to protect water supplies.

"We recognize the societal need for wood products and for using publicly owned lands to provide timber resources," he wrote, but added that "the management of these lands needs to recognize the multiple functions that they perform in addition to generating revenue for counties."

The O&C lands are scattered in a checkerboard fashion across 18 counties in Oregon and affect a number of drinking water suppliers.

Three Oregon congressmen, Democrats Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader and Republican Greg Walden, wrote the O&C bill. It was included in a broader federal land bill expected to come before the full House in September.

Wyden says he expects to introduce his own version of the bill in September.

"This is not a new concern," said Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee. "Ron has said all along that protecting watersheds and clean water is something we have to do."

Karl Morgenstern, the environmental management supervisor for the Eugene Water and Electric Board, helped organize the letter-writing effort to Wyden.

He said he didn't want to "throw darts" at DeFazio's efforts but that Wyden "seems to be moving in a direction that is more beneficial to water users."

Environmental groups have been strongly critical of the DeFazio-Schrader-Walden bill because it proposes putting more than half of the O&C lands in a state-managed trust that would in many ways follow the same logging rules as private timberlands.

They say it would reduce the streamside buffers required for federal lands, loosen restrictions on the use of herbicides and lead to more clear-cutting.

DeFazio has repeatedly said he is willing to consider further changes to his bill, which he describes as a compromise to win Republican support. He said in a statement that he is "absolutely committed" to working with water users as the O&C proposal advances legislatively.

DeFazio noted that he made changes in the bill to require much larger streamside buffers than are required under the Oregon Forest Practices Act, which covers private lands. And he noted that House bill would also provide additional revenue to private and tribal landowners to improve their streamside protections.