Potato giant J.R. Simplot wants to use its regional water systems rights for irrigation.

City of Hermiston officials want to negotiate before handing the water over.

Simplot representatives made their pitch Tuesday to the Port of Umatilla commission, Hermiston officials and the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The regional water system is operated by the city of Hermiston and rates are established by the Port of Umatilla. The water right also belongs to the port.

Simplot, which operated a potato processing plant until 2004 near Hermiston, is considered an “initial” user on the system, said Kim Puzey, Port of Umatilla general manager.

Hermiston City Manager Ed Brookshier said Simplot is entitled to 1,018 gallons per minute, which can be taken as either treated or untreated water from the regional water system.

But Simplot’s water right has always been an industrial water right, excluding it from agricultural irrigation uses, said Mike Ladd, Oregon Water Resources Department regional manager, but with the port’s municipal water right, the water can be used for irrigation.

“The only thing the municipal water right doesn’t include is hydroelectric power generation,” Ladd said.

Simplot has irrigated two parcels totalling 964 acres with water rights from Westland Irrigation District and the Umatilla River, both of which are limited, said Rob Cox, Simplot farm manager. Waste water from Calpine’s Hermiston Power Project is also used, but is high in salt and has to be diluted with fresh water before use, Cox said.

“We can’t go with large quantities of that and we still pay an assessment every month and would like to use the water that we’re paying for,” Cox said.

Bob Levy, a Hermiston farmer who accompanied Cox in his request Tuesday, asked the commission to approve the request either by resolution or recommendation.

“Rob will be calling to ask that the water be delivered to the Simplot site as per the contract some time in the near future,” Levy said. “We would like the port’s support in allowing that to happen.”

Brookshier and Chet Prior, representing the Hermiston Development Corporation, expressed concerns about water being taken away from the former processing plant property and decreasing the industrial site’s value and appeal.

“We really have a very grave concern, and one I would hope the port would share, that the Simplot industrial site is unique. ... Were it not for the terms of Simplot headquarters, I could name at least two major industries that we would have located on that property in the last five years,” Brookshier said. The potato processing plant has not operated since 2004 and the company will not sell the property, which has access to a waste disposal system, rail, power and water.

“If you take away the water you’ve got a worthless piece of ground,” Brookshier said. “I think what we would like to see is some ability when a prospect came along, to add a new line or whatever might be needed or have some fixed term to the agreement ... that we would have the ability to show that property.”

Cox said the company is not asking to remove the water and never go back, citing if there was a purpose at the plant for the water it would be diverted there.

“If Simplot had a facility come in there, it would be there,” Cox said of the water.

Puzey said the request needs to be reviewed by the appropriate legal counsels, but expects the contract and state law will allow the request to be granted.

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Contact Anna Willard at awillard@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

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