What we’re watching: Water
NOTE: This blog has been updated with the status of each bill as of the end of the 2019 Legislative Session. Read OEC’s 2019 legislative wrap-up here.
April marked the first major deadline for bills moving forward in the Oregon Legislature this year and the midway point of the 2019 session.
Of more than 2,700 bills and resolutions that were introduced by lawmakers, a strong line-up of water-related bills is still under serious consideration. Here at OEC we are following and weighing in on the following issues that have a direct impact on Oregon’s water resources and hope you will too:
Oregon’s 100-year water vision
Among OEC’s top priorities over the next several years is to advance a bold new vision for Oregon to invest in a more integrated, sustainable and just water system. We are working with diverse water stakeholders from across the state to move this forward, and Oregon’s natural resource agency leaders have taken the first step in collaborating to create a 100-year water vision that reflects the natural and built water infrastructure needs of communities across the state. Now we are calling on the state legislature to fund critical agency budget requests to conduct a statewide water needs assessment and regional prioritization process in partnership with water stakeholders.
Budgets can be boring, but without these resources, collaborative efforts to make meaningful change for communities already feeling the impacts of drought, flooding and constrained water quality will fall short. OEC testified in support of key agency budget requests earlier this session, and there will be a hearing next week on a resolution (HCR 33) calling for statewide conversations on key water issues affecting Oregonians and an exploration of innovative water solutions that result in positive net environmental health and economic benefits to communities. Sign up for OEC’s action alerts to make your voice heard when this issue goes to the floor.
UPDATE: A secure and resilient water future for all Oregonians is possible, but requires a more serious and consistent investment of resources. This session, the legislature allocated some funding to begin the process, but far more is needed to set Oregon on a course to protect clean water now and for the next 100 years.
Drinking water wells
Nearly one in four people living in Oregon get their drinking water from a well. If you are one of them, you have the right to know what’s in your water. Domestic well water can be contaminated by bacteria, nitrates, and arsenic, among other things—all of which can have serious health impacts. In reality, most families that drink well water have never had their well tested, and renters often lack information on whether their well water is safe to drink, despite the legal requirement of landlords to provide safe drinking water.
OEC has been working to pass legislation that ensures renters who depend on well water at their homes for drinking, cooking and bathing have information about contaminants so they can take action to protect their families. Our “Safe Well Water” bill (HB 2860) will require landlords to test drinking water wells for contaminants and inform tenants of the results, as well as create a fund to help low-income property owners and landlords repair wells or install water treatment systems. The bill has passed out of committee and is waiting to be reviewed by Ways and Means. Sign up for OEC’s action alerts to help advocate when the time is right.
UPDATE: Our effort to ensure renters are informed about the safety of the well water they drink did not pass, despite having agreement among stakeholders. HB 2860 got caught in a backlog of bills needing funding from the state, and didn’t rise to the top. We will bring back this legislation to address the safety of well water.
Plastics and styrofoam
Every day people are throwing away tons of single-use cups, containers and other plastic “stuff.” Among the worst forms of plastic pollution is polystyrene foam (the stuff most of us call Styrofoam), which never fully degrades. The sheer volume of plastic waste and its brutal impact on marine wildlife is shocking. But just as disturbing is the emerging story of how the toxicity of plastic pollution is affecting human health and the health of the planet as a whole.
A bill banning single-use Styrofoam food containers (HB 2883) passed the House on Tuesday and now heads to the Senate. The Oregon Legislature is also considering bills this session to limit other single-use plastics. However, not all bans are good. When industry representatives offered a flurry of amendments to a bill to limit single-use plastic straws (SB 90), it was rewritten to prohibit local jurisdictions from making their own rules about straws. Now cities like Eugene oppose the bill because it would prevent them from enacting more comprehensive single-use plastics policies. Follow Surfrider and Environment Oregon to stay up-to-date on efforts to reduce plastic waste in Oregon.
UPDATE: On June 20, Governor Brown signed a statewide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags (HB 2509) into law, giving Oregon one of the most protective statewide bag bans in the country. The plastic bag ban goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020. Unfortunately, a ban on polystyrene food containers (HB 2883) failed in the Oregon Senate on June 11, and a bill to reduce plastic straws (SB 90) passed with an amendment preempting local governments from passing more comprehensive plastics policies.
Toxic algae and drinking watersheds
After last summer’s toxic algae scare in Salem and Woodburn, Oregon public health agencies, water providers and lawmakers have been looking for strategies to protect our drinking water and keep similar events from getting out of control in the future. Oregon Health Authority identified the likely rise of harmful algal blooms as a major threat to our access to clean water in its 2017 Climate and Health Resilience Plan, and in 2018, identified 41 water systems across the state at risk for similar events.
Harmful algae blooms are caused by the perfect storm of warm, slow moving water and nutrient pollution – i.e. too much nitrogen and phosphorous from soil erosion, common fertilizers, manure and other sources flowing or leaking into our waterways. House Bill 2656, dubbed the “Oregon Safe Waters Act,” aims to reduce those inputs into water bodies by strengthening standards on forestlands that are drinking water sources. Read more about how we can better manage our water resources to reduce algae impacts here.
UPDATE: HB 2656 did not make it out of committee in the 2019 legislative session. In the meantime, more than 100 water systems across the state have been identified that have source waters at risk for cyanobacteria blooms. Learn more about harmful algae across Oregon in our storymap: Waters out of whack.
Wetlands and affordable housing
Street Roots newspaper dug into House Bill 2796 this week with a story exploring how the bill pits needed affordable housing against the environment. This bill aims to ease building regulations at odds with wetlands protections in the Clean Water Act, but history has shown that development in flood prone areas only increases costs in the long-run.
Opponents argue building in wetlands can increase vulnerability to damaging effects of earthquakes and elevates exposure to flooding and erosion, which could burden unsuspecting homebuyers with future costs. Extreme flooding earlier this month upstream on the Willamette River in Eugene and Corvallis “is a perfect illustration of why we need our wetlands,” said Kathleen Guillozet, who directs the Willamette Model Watershed Program for the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Read the full story at StreetRoots.org.
Oil train safety
On June 3, 2016, an oil train carrying highly flammable Bakken crude oil through the Columbia River Gorge derailed and caught fire near the tiny town of Mosier. Firefighters battled for 14 hours to contain the fire as oil spread in a sheen on the Columbia River. Students were evacuated from their schools and residents of the town lost sewer and water service for days. In the past five years, oil train derailments, explosions, and fires in North America have resulted in 47 deaths, the evacuation of thousands of people, millions of gallons of oil spilled into waterways, and billions of dollars of property damage and environmental destruction.
This session, conservation groups are working to pass legislation to improve oil train safety and ensure that Oregon is prepared in the instance of another accident like the one in Mosier. HB 2209, which would require railroads that own or operate high hazard train routes to have oil spill contingency plans that have been approved by DEQ, is in the House Ways and Means Committee now. Follow Oregon League of Conservation Voters to stay up-to-date.
UPDATE: HB 2209 passed and was signed into law by Governor Brown on July 23. Starting in January 2020, rail companies will be held accountable for oil train spills and required to develop spill contingency plans for oil train accidents with Oregon DEQ.
The state’s affordable loan program that helps families replace failing septic systems or connect to municipal sewers is up for renewal, and proponents are looking to grow this critical program that has served rural homeowners in 75% of Oregon counties. OEC supports SB 756 because the Affordable Septic System Replacement Loan Program helps reduce the number of leaky septic systems that may be affecting water quality in both groundwater and local bodies of water.
How big of a deal is a leaky septic system? At Tenmile Lakes in Coos County, DEQ modeling from 2007 revealed that during summer, when water levels are lower, septic systems from lakefront homes contributed 50% of the nutrient pollution going into the lakes, contributing to recurring toxic algae blooms. More than 13 million gallons of wastewater is now treated annually by new systems funded through this program, helping families live healthier lives while protecting ecosystems from the harmful effects of untreated human waste. Read more about families that have benefited from this program here.
UPDATE: SB 756 got stalled in committee midway through the legislative session, which means that critical grant dollars for ‘deferred payment’ low-income septic loans are currently unavailable. Few state programs exist to help homeowners fund septic projects, making investments like these ever more critical for preventing pollution that can increase harmful algae blooms and contaminate well water with dangerous nitrates.