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Drown that bill

Local editorial

Ownership of water rights would open Oregon to water investors

State senators should quickly douse a proposal to give the holders of water rights the outright ownership of those rights. It's an idea intended to ensure water for farmers and property owners, but one that could in fact do just the opposite.

Currently, no one truly owns water rights, but instead the rights are attached to properties. House Bill 3298 ' approved by the House and now headed to the Senate ' would change that, making the owners of the property also the owners of the accompanying water rights.

The proponents of the measure ' primarily farmers and associated organizations ' say it would essentially put into law a practice that exists for all intents and purposes. They cast it as a property rights issue, saying there is no guarantee now that property owners will always have access to water.

The current system is far from perfect. Water rights law is extremely complex and often archaic, and enforcement of individual water rights is a low priority for cash-strapped state and local agencies. It also is hardly equitable: Farmland and fish habitat can go wanting at one end of a stream while creekside neighbors water their lawns farther upstream.

But the proposal to make water rights a saleable property is an invitation to disaster for farmers and the state. If water rights, like private property, can be bought and sold, how long do you think it will take water investors to move in? They'll buy water rights from estates, they'll buy water rights from families who find themselves in tough financial circumstances and they'll buy water rights at inflated prices to corner the market in a watershed.

— And then, guess what? You want water for your crops? That water might now be owned by H2O Inc., or by a municipal water district or by, gasp, an environmental group intent on protecting fish. And you just might be out of luck.

Passing HB3298 could put Oregon's water future in the hands of people interested only in their own agendas and profits. This idea should be put in a bottle, tossed into the nearest stream and sent out to sea to sink.