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Controversial McKenzie Water Permit Denied

Though speculating on water is illegal, WaterWatch of Oregon says Willamette Water Company was looking to do just that back in 2008 when it applied for a permit to withdraw 22 million gallons per day from the McKenzie River. On March 7, the Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD) issued a final order denying the Willamette Water Co.’s controversial application to control a large amount of the McKenzie’s water.

Lisa Brown, staff attorney for WaterWatch of Oregon, which fought the permit, says, “Under Oregon law, Oregon’s waters belong to the public — not to private water companies hoping to profit by monopolizing the resource for future sale.” The McKenzie is the water source for the city of Eugene.

Developer Greg Demers owns Willamette Water in partnership with the McDougal brothers; these developers are also involved in the controversial mining of scenic Parvin Butte in Dexter.

Willamette Water Co. said it intended to sell the water to rural communities around Lane County, and in October 2011 the conservative majority on the Lane County Board of Commissioners voted in favor of a resolution in support of the water bid. Commissioner Pete Sorenson and former commissioner Rob Handy voted against it. 

In addition to getting a water right, Willamette Water also challenged fish protection conditions recommended by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and proposed by the WRD, Brown says. 

The recent final order stemmed from a contested case hearing two years ago. In April of 2012 Administrative Law Judge James Han wrote in his ruling that “the preponderance of the evidence established” that the company’s application was speculative because it had no contracts to sell water, had not shown it would obtain them in the future and was applying for more water than it could show it would put to “actual beneficial use.” The case then went to the WRD.

Brown says in its 83-page ruling that the WRD “correctly found that Willamette Water Co.’s proposal was illegal because it was attempting to tie up a large block of water for undefined future sale, rather than proposing to use the water beneficially as required by law.” She adds that the department “agreed with the judge that what the company was proposing was not a beneficial use but rather was speculative and therefore wasteful.”

EW’s award-winning series on the McKenzie River and Willamette Water drew attention to the issue in 2010, and the articles were cited in the 2012 contest case hearing.

Willamette Water has 20 days to file objections to the state’s denial of the permit, after which the state could modify the decision and issue a new order. After that process ends, the state’s denial can be brought to the Oregon Court of Appeals. EW contacted Reed Marbut, one of the attorneys for Willamette Water, for comment, but did not hear back before press time.