A Butte Falls couple whose pond is threatened with demolition under Oregon water laws received good news from legislators this week who are pushing a bill that would help preserve small rural reservoirs.
"If it passes, it will save the pond," Jon Carey said. "We're much more encouraged than we were before, but it's not a slam dunk."
Last year Carey and his wife, Sabrina, discovered that they don't have water rights to a pond that was built 40 years ago, long before they bought the property off Butte Falls Highway three years ago. Other ponds in the area could run into a similar problem because the water rights are owned by the Medford Water Commission.
Hearing of their plight, Reps. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, and Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, sponsored House Bill 3421, which would provide a means for property owners to register ponds built prior to 2000.
"We have become accidental water-rights activists," said Carey, who testified Monday with his wife before the House Committee on Energy and the Environment.
The bill cleared the committee but could face other challenges before it comes to a vote.
"I think it's a pretty sound bill," Esquivel said. "But we're not done by a long shot."
Under the bill, the Medford Water Commission would still own the rights to the water in the pond, with the understanding the water may have to be released in case of a drought, Esquivel said.
Last year, the Careys pleaded with the Water Commission to allow them to keep the pond with the promise that they wouldn't use the water.
Craig Harper, watershed administrator for the Water Commission, said his agency supported HB 3421.
"This is a good bill, well-conceived and clearly written, and with a few minor revisions will help provide a solution to a regulatory dilemma," Harper wrote in an April 14 email to the House committee.
WaterWatch, a nonprofit river conservation group, has opposed the legislation.
"At its core, this bill will legalize reservoirs/dams that are diverting and storing water illegally," according to an April 17 paper sent to the Energy and Environmental Committee.
The bill could impact other waterways in the state, including Diamond Lake and Lake of the Woods, according to WaterWatch.
Prior to purchasing their property, the Careys inspected county records that they say clearly indicated it had a pond.
When Jon Carey decided to grow medical cannabis, he needed to prove that he had a viable water source. At that point, the Careys say, the Jackson County watermaster told them the pond violated state regulations, and the previous owners hadn’t received a permit.
Under the bill, the Careys would have to reduce the size of the pond to a maximum 9.2 acre feet. The Careys don't use water from the pond, though it has been used for wildfire suppression in the past. The Careys' well also stopped working, forcing them to have water hauled onto the property.
Because of mounting legal fees, the Careys have created a gofundme.com site to raise money that would help pay for measuring equipment and other changes to the pond to meet new requirements of the proposed bill.
According to an April 17 paper to the House committee, the Water Resources Department's review of the bill concluded the watermaster, after the approval of the registration of the pond, could require head gates, measuring devices and outlet controls.
Sabrina Carey says she is heartened by the support received from legislators.
"There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel," she said.
— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.
Text of Oregon House Bill 3421 by Mail Tribune on Scribd