Ditch legislation

Farmer John Scharf explains the drainage of tile lines from his fields near Amity into a ditch. A compromise bill passed by the Legislature would allow farmers to clean out ditches more easily.

SALEM — A key group of Oregon lawmakers has recommended spending $700,000 to implement new regulations allowing farmers to clean more sediment from ditches with less red tape.

Currently, farmers must obtain a state fill-removal permit to dredge more than 50 cubic yards of dirt from drainage ditches, which is considered an overly burdensome and frequently ignored requirement.

Under House Bill 2437, that limit would increase to 3,000 cubic yards of material per mile of drainage ditch over five years, as long as the channels are dry and uninhabited by sensitive salmonid fish, among other provisions.

Because additional government employees would need to oversee the program, HB 2437 would require about $250,000 for the state Department of Agriculture and $200,000 for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Another $240,000 would be appropriated for Oregon State University to study the biological impacts of cleaning out the channels.

Though HB 2437 was approved by the House Committee on Agriculture and Land Use in April, its spending provisions mean it must also clear the budget-setting Joint Committee on Ways and Means. That’s generally considered a tall hurdle, since many bills die in that committee.

On May 30, a subcommittee dedicated to natural resources voted 6-2 to recommend the bill for approval, which is expected to greatly increase its chances in the Joint Ways and Means Committee and the overall Legislature.

“It’s a very positive indication of the bill’s future,” said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau, which supports HB 2437.

While the original version of the bill would have simply required farmers to notify ODA of planned ditch-cleaning, the current language would require a review period by state fish and wildlife experts.

“Compromise is what makes the world move forward,” Cooper said.

The bill’s goal is to create a simple and “easy to understand” regulatory program that doesn’t consume a lot of time, she said.

Whether it will accomplish that aim may require an “adaptive process” if the bill is enacted into law, Cooper said.

Two lawmakers who voted against the bill said they disagreed with aspects of its policy and how the program would be funded.

Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, said HB 2437 “falls short in a lot of areas that are a concern of mine,” such as an insufficient focus on the water quality effects of ditch-cleaning.

The study of the bill’s impacts should also be studied by an independent science review panel instead of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, he said.

“I don’t have enough faith in that department solely doing it on its own,” Holvey said.

Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, said the bill is intended to benefit a specific population of people who should fund the program by paying fees instead of spending general fund dollars for the new positions.

“I would have preferred to see a permit here to generate the funds for the oversight,” she said.

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