The Oregon Legislature and Governor’s Office must take decisive action to address gaps in statewide water governance that contribute to water insecurity for Oregon communities, according to an advisory report released today by the Secretary of State.
Water insecurity is a reality for many Oregon residents and a growing risk for many more. Ongoing drought conditions and concerns around the quality, safety, and accessibility of water have demonstrated the need for better governance to protect Oregon’s water security. This advisory report addresses gaps in Oregon’s water governance that can lead to or worsen water insecurity and lead to inequitable outcomes for higher-risk communities. We offer suggestions for state leadership on how to improve these gaps in governance.
The state has made some efforts to address water security concerns. The passage of House Bill 5006 in 2021 led to significant investments in local infrastructure projects, increases in agency staffing, and the creation of the State Supported Regional Water Planning and Management Workgroup. Several state agencies have demonstrated a commitment to finding broad, cross-cutting solutions to water security concerns through ongoing efforts to improve water data, include more diverse communities in decision making, and engage in planning and coordination.
“Water is life. And the findings in this advisory report are shocking,” said Secretary of State Shemia Fagan. “Not only are many families in Oregon dealing with water insecurity today, many more are at high-risk of becoming water insecure in the very near future. What’s shocking about this report is it shows that we don’t have a plan to address the problem. So today, I am offering the Oregon Legislature and Governor Kotek a road map to create a statewide plan to address water security in Oregon. We must take urgent action to address this crisis.”
While these developments hold promise, Oregon is underprepared to provide meaningful support to many communities facing water insecurity and has more work to do to meet the state’s immediate and long-term water security and water equity needs.
The following aspects of Oregon’s water governance need urgent attention:
Oregon communities facing water insecurity often encounter numerous barriers to addressing the problem directly. The state has a fragmented and siloed institutional structure around water that can make it challenging to apply cross-agency and multi-level solutions to local problems, and there is not a clear framework in place to support multi-level coordination. State water policy also prioritizes water access for senior water right holders and does not fully account for the complexity of the resource or its relationship to ecosystem health.
- Many communities are not fully integrated into water decisions and often not even aware there is a problem.
- The Oregon Integrated Water Resources Strategy is not clearly connected to state and regional planning efforts and does not have clear implementation pathways.
- Oregon’s state leadership and agencies do not necessarily share water security priorities. Agencies have distinct areas of focus and limited resources and capacity that limit the ability to engage broadly with communities or work across agency lines.
- Oregon water data is disaggregated, sometimes incomplete, and not set up to support regional governance needs.
- Oregon lacks a water funding strategy that ties state and regional planning to investments. The state’s water infrastructure suffers from decades of disinvestment and natural resource agencies lack funding and capacity to properly enact their duties.
- State water regulatory agencies have broad discretion but face external pressures that may hinder them from fully using this discretion to benefit the public.
Furthermore, while Oregon’s federally recognized Tribes are proactive in addressing water insecurity, a history of oppression and ongoing industrial and agricultural practices ecologically inappropriate for Oregon’s water basins has undermined their ability to ensure water security in their homelands.