The Observer | August 7, 2023
LA GRANDE — The future of groundwater rights and quality in Eastern Oregon was discussed by policymakers, government staff members and stakeholders at the 2023 Eastern Oregon Economic Summit on Friday, Aug. 4.
During the second day of the summit, two panels of water experts presented updates and answered audience questions about groundwater issues in the lower Columbia River Basin in Zabel Hall on Eastern Oregon University’s campus.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, began the first water panel — which discussed groundwater quantity in the region — by adding his personal stake as a first generation farmer in Harney County.
“I built the farm wanting to give it down to my family, my kids,” he said. “My kids will not farm groundwater in Harney County. It’s not going to happen.”
In April 2022, the Oregon Water Resources Department and the U.S. Geological Survey released a study of the groundwater resources in Harney Basin, citing that groundwater use in the lowlands was exceeding recharge by about 110,000 acre-feet/year.
There are no numbers to tell if the same is happening in the lower Umatilla Basin.
Ahead of a decision to amend Division 10, Oregon Administrative Rules on critical groundwater areas, farmers and landowners with domestic wells fear having their wells shut off.
“Fifty-two percent of the state of Oregon doesn’t have the information in order to determine if water is available or not,” Owens said. “Why is the (Oregon Water Resource Department) entering groundwater, if they don’t have the data that’s available?”
Oregon Farm Bureau Vice President of Government Legal Affairs Lauren Poor said that although she has concerns of how groundwater is being allocated in the county, the bureau wants to make sure to protect senior water rights holders — namely, farmers and ranchers.
Fourth-generation farmer Jake Madison’s family well was shut off in the 1980s when their land was deemed to be in a critical groundwater area.
“It was a life changing event for a lot of farmers in the area,” he said.
However, his family managed to survive by collecting floodwater from a creek on their land during the spring, purifying it and then “shoving” it down into engineered basalt basins under their land to be used during the summertime.
He said that now, updated technology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service can help farmers with innovative solutions if their wells are shut off.
Another panel focused on the quality of groundwater in light of the Morrow County nitrate pollution issue.
The Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area is working with Gabriela Goldfarb of the Department of Environmental Quality — and who is “on loan” to Gov. Kotek’s office — and others to help the affected community.
Goldfarb said that there is scientific evidence that anywhere above 10 milligrams per liter of nitrates in drinking water can cause short-term (less than a year) health issues such as miscarriages in pregnant women or long-term ones like bladder and stomach cancers and thyroid conditions.
“We know that nitrate affects the ability of blood to carry oxygen,” she said.
Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran said that DEQ Director Leah Feldon directed funds from the governor’s budget towards dedicated staffing to help with the LUBGMA and that Kotek has reaffirmed her support for the area as well.
“During the 2023 legislative session, the Governor advocated for $8 million dollars in agency budgets to be dedicated to free testing, treatment, and water delivery for residents of the LUBGWMA. The Legislature funded this request,” Kotek press secretary Anca Matica said in a statement.
According to the statement, Kotek’s goal is to offer every household in the LUBGWMA water testing, treatment and delivery (if test results are higher than 10 mg/L), by September 30th.
Goldfarb predicts that intermediate solutions and alternative sources of safe water for the area will be available to the community in about a decade.
Ontario Community Recreation Center hearing, fixes for small school boards and farmland in focus
ONTARIO — Andrew Maeda, executive director of Ontario Recreation District traveled to Salem for a public hearing this week and it went well. That was one piece of a large update Wednesday morning on how things are going in Oregon’s legislative session.
Providing the update and opportunity to dialogue were Dist. 30 Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Dist. 60 Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane. Their respective districts include Malheur County.
Thanks to co-hosts Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce and Treasure Valley Community College, the Legislative Hotline is expected to continue the third Wednesday of each month through the session, with other cities or counties in the lawmakers’ districts eventually getting patched in, too. The meetings will be in the Hanigan Board Room in the Laura Moore Cunningham Science Center at TVCC. This is the same room where the TVCC Board of Education holds its monthly meetings.
Findley said the pace of the session, which is in its fifth week, has picked up significantly, with some bills now going across chambers. The first deadline is two weeks away to read the bills or they start dying.
With about 4,000 bills, Findley noted, that will be a good thing. Owens remarked how each legislative committee has been assigned about 90 bills and won’t be able to get to them all.
Today marks the final day for Legislative Concepts to get out of the office for introduction.
This coming Tuesday is the expected day for the revenue forecast for February, which will “get us rolling” on the budget. That forecast is expected to set the stage and Findley said “there’s a lot of apprehension we may be in a deeper hole that we thought.”
Owens pointed out how more contentious bills are going to be coming down the pipeline in the next week; however, added that the atmosphere at the Capitol has “been more bipartisan.” He said that is intentional on the Democrat leadership, with conversations happening on everything from “the most conservative bill to the most liberal bill.”
“Which I haven’t seen before this session,” Owens said, adding that it was a good thing.
The majority party is allowing hearings on bills that would never have had hearings before and “setting a more positive tone in the building.”
Rec center bill picks up bipartisan support
Findley and Owens are chief sponsors of House Bill 2410 aimed at getting lottery bonds to build the Ontario Community Recreation Center which had a hearing on Tuesday. There are currently 59 written comments in support of it, all from citizens in the Ontario area.
The hearing was held on Tuesday by the House Committee on Emergency Management, General Government and Veterans. HB 2410 authorizes the issuance of $4.5 million in lottery bonds to facilitate the construction and project management of the Ontario Community Recreation Center.
Owens noted how they had heard some questions from other lawmakers about why they needed to have a hearing on a bill for a capital construction request. He said sometimes those requests come with a compelling story, like Ontario’s, and need help from the community in pushing it through Ways and Means.
Findley said that the hearing was “excellent,” and that he heard from some of the majority party afterward.
“It’s gaining bipartisan support,” he said, noting how that was important as lawmakers would have to hone down what projects they will allocate funding to. HB 2410 carries an emergency declaration.
Findley said that he got a call from Maeda on Sunday asking whether he should attend in person or virtually.
“I don’t think you can beat in person,” Findley said, emphasizing how it help with networking.
Owens said Maeda “did a great job” at the hearing and Findley commented how Maeda stood in the hallway afterward and had at least three lawmakers come by and shake his hand, telling him he did a good job.
Findley said he knows how hard it is to travel from Malheur County to Salem, which takes 7 to 8.5 hours.
“It’s a big commitment to come, and sometimes it’s worth it,” he said. “We’re happy with how the hearing went and we’ll see how it goes.”
Bills with legs include fix for small school boards
There are a lot of bills floating around for eastern Oregon and some for Malheur County “have some legs,” according to Findley.
This includes mirror bills, Senate Bill 66 and House Bill 2505, both of which aim to allow municipalities to raise up the local tax collected on the sale of marijuana goods and bills on exemptions for the corporate activity tax, a bill regarding what to do with batteries from electric vehicles; and House Bill 2689 that would allow processing of 1,000 meat rabbits or fewer to be sold for local meat (that stemmed from a 13-year-old from Baker County who raises rabbits).
One that received unanimous support was House Bill 2764 A, which came about due to Michael Vaughan, who went missing at the age of 5 near his home in Fruitland, Idaho, in July of 2021. He still has not been found.
The bill would create a stopgap for persons not eligible for Amber Alerts, but who may still be missing or endangered.
“Remember Michael Vaughan? Idaho like all 50 states, couldn’t issue an Amber Alert because there was no suspect vehicle and a lot of things, they couldn’t put out, basically what I call and APB,” Owens said.
He noted that Idaho and Washington have since created a new system and that Oregon had started on that journey with four amendments now combined into one.
The bill would allow Oregon State Police to craft a missing and endangered response. Owens noted that there are typically 1,300 people on the missing endangered list, this bill should hopefully reduce that. The bill passed unanimously in the House and was referred to the Senate Labor and Business committee on Thursday.
Another bill Owens is hopeful will pass is House Bill 3203, floated by Dist. 56 Rep. Emily McIntire. That bill would be a fix to a bill that was passed in 2022 which requires school board members to fill out Statement of Economic Interest forms. That law goes into effect April 15.
“For a lot of our farmers and ranchers, it’s pretty obnoxious,” he said. “We got calls from Arock, Jordan Valley, Crane, Nyssa, with ‘What is this? We will resign before the April 15 deadline.’”
HB 3203 would exempt board members in schools with 7,500 or fewer students. While that wouldn’t cover Baker or Ontario, it would help out those smaller, more rural districts.
Owens said they fought against the bill last year on behalf of small school districts, but “got railed hard.” But now, with so much pushback from members of small boards, the lawmakers made their case for an exemption. Owens says it is expected to pass through both chambers; However, it’s unknown if it the governor will be able to sign it by April 15 when the new rule kicks in.
“We will make sure there are no fines” for people in small school districts who have not filled them out by then.
Rezoning non-irrigated farmland fix gets ‘major pushback’
One bill that is receiving major pushback is Senate Bill 70 for which a public hearing was held Feb. 8. The bill is a technical fix for the Eastern Oregon Economic Development Region and regards rezoning non-irrigated farmland to residential land. The bill only impacts lands that have not been employed for farm use in the prior three years. It does not include high-value farmland, land with predominantly composed Class I, II or III soils or land which is viable for reasonably obtaining a profit through farm use.
Findley said the Bill was a technical fix to one that passed two years ago and that he thought it would move through well.
“That is not the case, we’re receiving major pushback,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough road, as the opposition to that bill is intense.”
He said lawmakers were receiving thousands of emails about how terrible the bill is, adding “it’s really not.”
“Some in Oregon say it is an effort by eastern Oregon to build vacation homes on exclusive farm ground,” Owens said, noting they had showed them maps explaining how it is not. “It’s extremely frustrating the lack of information people have when they go into hard-press opposition to it.”
Mike Blackaby noted that he thinks those opposed believe the bill is “taking land that is irrigated. If you sent a picture, you could see it is not — it is sagebrush.”
Findley noted the land in question was near the Owyhee Irrigation District and would only fit about 100 homes on 2-acre lots. Some have suggested to use Ontario’s Urban Reserve area instead, however Findley said that it’s all Class I farmland and as such, not an option in his mind.
“It’s a lack of education on their part and a lack of becoming educated,” he said. “They just want to throw rocks.”
The lawmakers said with all the opposition, it would be nice to see letters of support from residents in the county. Findley added that Border Board Executive Director Shawna Peterson did “an incredible job testifying last week,” but added that it was “hard to convince people when they don’t want to learn.”
Owens also suggested emailing Sen. Jeff Golden at Sen.JeffGolden@oregonlegislature.gov to express concern about the misinformation over SB 70 and request a meeting. Golden is the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee which held the hearing.
By Emily Cureton (OPB) and Erin Ross (OPB)
Aug. 12, 2020
Click here for original OPB article.
The Oregon Department of Education has announced new health metrics that make it easier for rural schools to reopen. But districts are still trying to figure out what these benchmarks mean.
How and when Oregon kids will go back to classrooms is still an open question, with the opening of school fast approaching. This week, the state’s Department of Education bowed to pressure from rural community leaders and released new standards for in-person instruction in the state’s most sparsely-populated areas.
ODE Director Colt Gill said that the goal of these updated protocols is to allow rural schools the flexibility to reopen their doors while ensuring that any school-related outbreaks remain small.
“We want to make sure no local health authority would be overwhelmed by contact tracing. We want to reduce the number of students and staff interacting,” said Gill.
Counties with populations of less than 30,000 will be able to open, even if they don’t meet the statewide standard of fewer than 30 cases per 100,000 residents. Those counties can open schools that serve fewer than 250 students if certain criteria are met. Conditions include limiting the total number of cases in a county over the previous three weeks to no more than 30. If more than half of those cases occurred in the final week of that three-week period schools would have to remain closed, because it could indicate increasing community transmission.
There can’t be any transmission happening in the school community and only schools where less than 10% of students travel from another area will qualify.
In counties with a population of fewer than six people per square mile, schools can reopen regardless of size if there have been fewer than 30 cases total in the last three weeks. The schools can’t serve a “significant number” of students commuting from other districts, and there can’t be active outbreaks in commuters’ hometowns.
“We’ll take what we can get given the circumstances, and we’re thankful the state was willing to hear the feedback of our rural communities and find a common-sense solution,” said Crook County Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson in a Tuesday press release.
ODE’s revisions mean that in her district, two of Central Oregon’s smallest schools — Paulina and Brothers — will open their doors next month. Crook County officials are among school administrators across the state scrambling to decipher the guidelines and decide which facilities can have kids attend classes in-person.
Adding to the uncertainty, ODE officials have said they expect to update the guidance a few more times before school starts.
“I think it’s a great first step,” said Rep. Mark Owens of the revised guidance for small population counties. The Republican from Crane represents Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur and part of Lake counties — a vast swath of Oregon with a small fraction of the state population, where statewide rulemaking has long been a political target.
For months, Owens and other rural lawmakers have been advocating for rural school districts to be allowed to customize reopening plans with local public health officials: “I have no fear of COVID-19 spreading rapidly in our schools. If it does, actions will be taken, proper precautions will be maintained, and we’ll have lessons learned,” he said.
ODE said that rural health departments face unique challenges tracking and containing COVID-19. “For those very low population, but very large geographic counties, that does become a challenge,” said Gill, adding that health departments were consulted when making guidelines and that larger counties do have bigger health departments.
Owens also acknowledged that after years of budget cuts, and in some cases total defunding, many of the rural health departments these school plans now depend on “are not set up to deal with a global pandemic, or be successful without help.”
“The state is going to have to step up with some CARES Act funding in order to make sure that we can give them extra personnel,” Owens added.
Owens is married to a teacher, with a 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.
“I honestly feel that my family will be safer with the practices in place in school than they are when traveling to Home Depot, or traveling to some of the other things that are allowed currently,” he said.
If residents of one town frequently travel to another for work or to shop, outbreaks in those communities would also cause schools to close.
“We wanted provisions to address rural towns that are more of a bedroom community to a city that might be impacted by COVID-19,” Gill said, “[Local public health authorities] do need to understand if the majority of that community works in or shops in another community that is impacted, they’re not isolated.”
Because some rural towns are far apart or aren’t connected by major roads, some schools can stay open even if there is active community transmission in the county.
“The idea behind this guidance is that some of our very large geographic counties, where towns are spread out, could have an outbreak in one community, and then for thousands of square miles, no outbreaks,” Gill said.
That doesn’t just apply to in-state communities. Officials will also need to take into account outbreaks in nearby communities across state lines.
On the state’s eastern border with Idaho, Malheur County has become a hotspot for the virus in some areas, while other communities remain untouched. At over 10,000-square-miles, it’s the second-largest county in the state and a case study in the complexity of regulating Oregon’s diverse geography.
Zach Olson’s two kids were attending school in Nyssa, where the infection rate is nearly five times the state average, as of last week’s OHA report. It takes over an hour to drive from there, to the school in Jordan Valley, both within Malheur County.
Olson said he’s fortunate to be able to afford a nanny while his family juggles child care, and resentful that other kinds of business reopened before schools.
“Every day I walk by a closed elementary school and then numerous open bars, restaurants, and pot shops. The governor created that situation and it can not stand,” Olson said in an email.
The dad of two boys was critical of how often the guidelines have changed leading up to the start of the fall semester.
“It is great that the governor keeps taking steps towards prioritizing elementary and rural schools, but she is giving us whiplash,” he said.
The updated metrics also include exemptions for rural school districts in more populated counties. For urban schools to reopen, there needs to be less than 10 cases per 100,000 for three consecutive weeks. But rural schools can reopen if the school serves fewer than 250 people if there is no transmission in the community, and if they meet the same case metrics for counties with smaller populations
Many people in Oregon have reported delayed test results in the last month, sometimes waiting for as long as three weeks to find out if they have COVID-19. To make sure counties can identify outbreaks in time to close schools, presumptive cases do not need to be confirmed with a laboratory test to count.
As director of the Oregon Department of Education, Gill has the authority to close a school facility and address any complaints raised about flouting its guidance.
“These actions include the potential to withhold State School Fund (SSF) payments if needed and as a means of last resort,” according to the state guidelines.
Larry Meyer | Argus Observer | April 10
ONTARIO — State Senate District 30 and House Districts 59 and 60 held a joint virtual town hall Thursday, primarily discussing the issue that is keeping everyone apart, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy and health care.
The session hosted by Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Reps. Mark Owens, R-Crane, and Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, was held via video and phone conference with invited participants.
Leading off in answering a question about the impact on business, Findley noted that “small business is the back bone of our economy,” and the need to is put people back to work.
The pandemic could bring a change in how we do business, he said, emphasizing, “we have to protect our people.”
Commenting that unemployment insurance applicants now number 88,000, Findley said people need to get a check for people to live on. He also said, the officials need to protect markets for what people are producing.
“You have to figure out how to keep people in their houses,” he said. “You have to figure how to keep commerce going.”
One of the things needed to move business forward, according to Owens, is to draw down the regulations which have been put in place because of the virus. Bonham said the Republican lawmakers are drafting a series of letters to Gov. Kate Brown, including one as for support of rural hospitals.
“We need to have a healthy, functioning health care apparatus,” he said. Bonham says he is appalled state leaders have not taken more action to protect the health-care providers.
On education, he said students would be ready to transition to the next level next year and the state the should be improving the technology to help learning.
Owens expressed concerns about rural hospitals, saying hospitals are bleeding cash. “If we lose any of the hospitals, we will lose the community,” he said. More testing is needed to track the virus and a vaccine is needed to control it, Owens said.
Bonham said a special session to address budget issues the costs of dealing with the pandemic will probably not happen until the next revenue forecast in May, pushing a session toward the end of May and possibly into June.
Findley said among things the three lawmakers are doing is keeping in contact with the county commissioners about county needs.
By Senator Lynn Findley, Representative Mark Owens and Representative Daniel Bonham
Oregonians are experiencing unprecedented times and unforeseen challenges. The global pandemic is affecting each of us in different ways, but it is an equally confusing, scary, frustrating, and emotional time.
Even just a few weeks in, though, there is good news—Oregonians are staying home and staying healthy. The most recent modeling numbers from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) indicate that our combined efforts to abide by social distancing guidelines locally and across the state are working. It was reported on April 2 that the positive case numbers are down 50% to 70% from the earlier predictions.
One of our objectives, and the reason for such stringent measures, has been to “flatten the curve” and the Oregon Health Authority stated they will be able to tell us by the week of April 13 when we will reach this objective. This will be a key moment in our state. The restrictions are working, but the economic price we’re paying is becoming staggering. With each day that passes during this time, our local, regional and state economies are losing exponentially. Before we get to April 13 (or any other date certain), we must also understand what will be needed to get Oregonians back to work and doors open for business which will re-start our economy.
Despite much-needed and appreciated revenue and relief packages from our federal and state partners, no amount of stimulus can replace what Oregon’s economy can produce from inside the lines. The GDP of Oregon in 2018 was 213 billion. The Federal Stimulus package, or CARES Act, for Oregon appears to be 1.63 billion which means the federal funding is only three-days-worth of what Oregon’s economy can churn when it’s firing on all cylinders. Don’t get us wrong: this funding is absolutely necessary and will support us as an immediate and temporary means, but it will not and cannot solve the impacts felt by these drastic short-term measures, regardless of how necessary and helpful they have been.
We must get our economy working again by getting Oregonians working again, and this must happen as soon as possible. In order to do this safely, but quickly, there are a few things that must take place:
1. We need wide-scale testing so all Oregonians can be tested and once tested negative, start a system for allowing them to return to the workforce.
2. Ensure there is enough PPE in the state for our health care workers and first responders, particularly in eastern and rural Oregon.
3. A plan to protect our vulnerable populations as we re-enter the workforce and become a functional society again.
We can and must start addressing these issues immediately in parallel with following the measures to flatten the curve, prevent the spread of the virus and save lives. State leadership, of which we are a part of, needs to start this conversation today and open the table to regional leaders and other economic experts so we can find a way to invest money and resources to make these things happen.
Much like the Governor’s swift and necessary actions to stop the spread and flatten the curve in anticipation of the unknown, we need to take swift and necessary actions to prepare for what we do know. The longer Oregon’s economy has to keep it doors shut, the longer the recovery will take and the sharper the economic recovery curve will become.
Millions of Oregonians are relying on us to make sure they can recapture their livelihoods, protect their families and pay their bills. Oregon can’t wait any longer to start addressing these issues and getting back to work, while we all continue working together to flatten the curve and save lives.