WASHINGTON(AP) -- For Oregon and other western states, water is a scarce commodity. Bring together property owners whose livelihood depends on the water running through their property and environmentalists who view dwindling streams and shrinking waterways as disastrous for fish and other habitat, and tensions arise. However, according to a study just released by the Center for Private Conservation (CPC), a group in Oregon has found an amenable solution for both interests.
According to, Erin Schiller, Public Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, California, and author of the "Oregon Water Trust" case study, "The Trust obtains water rights through gifts, leases and outright purchases, and then transfers them to instream flows. Improving these flows into some of Oregon's rivers and streams not only protects fisheries and aquatic habitat, but also enhances their recreational value and ecological health.
Schiller explains that "The Trust relies on market exchanges that require voluntary cooperation from both parties involved. Its success depends not only on overcoming this polarization, but on demonstrating that it need not exist -- private property rights and environmental protection do not have to be at odds."
In existence for six years now, the Trust was formed after Oregon changed its water laws to create instream water rights. Until the law was changed, the state did not allow water rights to be used for leaving water instream because this was not considered a "beneficial" use.
The new law made the formation of the Trust possible and the group's mission to "use market incentives to benefit fish habitat made the Trust appealing to a wide spectrum of groups and individuals," Schiller notes. "Brought together by a common desire to get more water instream, yet representing interests as diverse as real estate, agriculture, and conservation, the founders did not create the Trust because of an ideological devotion to either free markets or environmental protection. Rather, they saw an opportunity for water markets to benefit both fish and property owners, and thus decided to provide the momentum necessary to get that market flowing," she added.
The success of the Trust was evident in 1994 during its first full year of operation. All four of its short-term goals were met: acquire a few significant rights right away and commit them to instream use; identify itself as a "problem solving, non-ideological group; cultivate further long-range goals; and lastly, develop a fund raising plan to maintain its operation.
The Trust now has an Executive Director, Andrew Purkey, and a five-person staff headquartered in Portland. A Board of Directors made up of nine individuals representing varied interests, maintains control of the Trust. Its funding for acquiring water rights totaled $284,000 during 1994-1998, and it has acquired another $370,000 worth of donated water rights.
Unfortunately, despite the success of the Trust, some skeptics still question the need to separate water from the land. Twice, according to Schiller, there has been legislative action to do away with the practice. "While they are not adverse to the idea of water rights as Private property rights, they view a complete separation of the two as a direct threat to their way of life," reported Schiller. She added, "The Trust has no interest in "taking" water away from farmers or ranchers. Rather, the Trust aims to create a cooperative environment in which it facilitates deals that benefit individual landowners and improves fish habitat."
Schiller concluded by noting that despite the apprehensions of the groups the Trust brings together, they have negotiated deals with over 50 water rights holders in Oregon. Just as vital, she said, is the success the Trust has had in changing attitudes about water and water markets. "By bringing agricultural interests and individual landowners together with environmentalists, the Trust helps pave the way to a more constructive and sensible approach, not only to water policy, but to natural resource management in general, both in and out of Oregon."
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