Umatilla County Board of Commissioners threatened to pull county funds for state water regulators unless the Oregon Department of Water Resources improves its communications and attitude.

The board met Wednesday at the county courthouse, Pendleton, to address several matters, including passing the county’s 2016-17 budget. But the first action item was to change the dynamics of the relationship between the county and the state water department.

The Oregon Water Resources Department oversees water law, among other functions, and uses assistant watermasters in local field offices to enforce that law and oversee water use.

Umatilla County hires and pays for assistant watermasters, but those county employees answer to the state. The county proposed to put an end to that practice, and push those employees onto the state payroll.

The county for fiscal year 2016-17 will contribute $210,000 for the equivalent of 2.9 full-time employees for the state watermaster office in Pendleton, and after that only will provide funds to support the program. The county board will set the amount of that support based on a recommendation from the budget committee.

The plan allows enough time for the state to become the formal employer of the watermasters.

The proposal also emphasized that district leadership in the water resources department has done a poor job of communicating with the board about water matters, and all the money is contingent on three conditions: the commissioners receive assurance from the state watermaster “that the level of service and deployment of staff will remain consistent throughout the coming year”; the state notifies the county of meetings involving water users; and communication between the state’s regional office and water users and local groups “be a matter of record” open for the commissioners to review. If the state does not live up to the county’s conditions, the county can stop funding the local watermaster, which could have a damaging effect on local water users.

Milton-Freewater irrigator Ed Berlingame said watermasters do important work in Umatilla County and the state.

“You got a war over there without a watermaster,” he said.

Brian Wolcott, executive director of the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council, said the Milton-Freewater/Walla Walla area has 20,000 irrigated acres and needs an assistant watermaster to make sure people follow water rights.

“There isn’t enough water to go around for everybody,” he said. “We got a lot of farms and ranches that fight over water on an annual basis.”

Wolcott also said while the county is considering the work as seasonal, irrigators in the Walla Walla Valley draw water every month except February, and the situation is going to worsen as groundwater becomes more critical.

Larry Nye with the Milton-Freewater Tea Party Patriots told the board the debate is about sovereignty.

“Somewhere along the line, local governments should draw a line in the sand,” he said. He also suggested a county group should advise the board on the issue and pleaded for the board to keep local control.

Commissioner Larry Givens said he was “a little irritated” that no one from the state was at the meeting, including watermaster Mike Ladd of the Pendleton office. Elfering said he worked on the proposal with water resources director Tom Byler, who was in Pendleton on Tuesday. Elfering said Byler offered to attend the commissioner’s meeting, but after their discussions Elfering told Byler he did not need to come.

Commissioner George Murdock said he would echo the board’s frustrations. During a budget meeting months ago, Murdock said the only county department that did not attend was the watermaster office. And no one from the state notified the county of a recent meeting in Milton-Freewater that involved 80 water users.

“We think those are gross inadequacies of communication,” Murdock said.

The board passed the proposal with a vote of 3-0, and moments later unanimously approved the county’s $72.2 million budget.

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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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