June 12, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

New Water Resources director told to transform the department in 6 to 12 months, or else

16 min read
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner said the governor and legislature will be watching Ivan Gall "like a hawk." If colleagues around the state do not see promised changes over the next six to 12 months, she said, "I don't think Mr. Gall is going to last very long as director."

State senators confirm Ivan Gall as director of Oregon’s Water Resources Department with a warning: They’ll be keeping a close eye on him and on the department’s performance. The new director faced tough questions May 29 at the Interim Senate Committee on Rules and Executive Appointments.

Ivan Gall (Water Resources Department, May 29, 2024): I recognize a culture shift and change are needed at the department. I’m prepared to make the changes needed to modernize water management in Oregon to improve flexibility, resilience, and dependability. Nimble and adaptive water management is needed due to increasing demand, sustained drought conditions and increased water scarcity made worse by climate change.

[00:00:36] The department is updating our strategic plan and the integrated water resources strategy. Both are vehicles to help us modernize water management and water planning here in Oregon…

[00:00:45] Water has changed in Oregon. What has worked in the past is no longer working for us. We will need collaboration, common sense, and compromise for us to succeed…

[00:00:55] I’ve already started to schedule meetings with our water user partners across the state. We’re going to seek out their thoughts on the department, where we need to make improvements, what their concerns are, what they’d like to see for a future Oregon.

[00:01:07] And then the longer-term goal is to start working on our rule and statute framework to modernize Oregon’s water law. We’ve got surface water code going back to 1909, groundwater code to 1955. It’s outdated, it’s not doing the job it needs to do for Oregonians, and we need to fix that.

[00:01:26] As far as metrics go, it’s really responsiveness to the public. We have internal and external clients, if you will, that we need to be responsive to. It’s accountability for meeting the performance measures that are out there. And then really to embrace the forward-looking approach towards the change that needs to come here.

[00:01:50] Sen. Elizabeth Steiner (May 29, 2024): …I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of lack of trust of OWRD around the state. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to you. There’s a perception in the community that the agency has a culture of, ‘Let’s take whatever the easiest path is,’ right?

[00:02:04] And whether that’s saying ‘No’ to a complicated project where there’s very highly technical stuff that you may or may not have the internal expertise to understand. No criticism meant to your team, I’m just saying that there’s some new stuff going on out there. Or, not enforcing regulations when someone’s flouting the law in terms of water use.

[00:02:28] If it’s the easiest path, your people are going to take it. And whether that’s local watermasters or others. So I’m curious about, and I would argue that we have seen in other agencies when new directors have come in and there have been problems, a fair amount of what is colloquially called ‘We be syndrome,’ as in ‘We be here when you be gone. So we’re just going to keep bullin’ it out, doing it our way.’

[00:02:52] So I’m kind of curious about how you’re going to help your colleagues get to a culture of ‘Yes, we’re going to do the hard work to try to make sure that people who have water rights are protected, and people who want to create innovative, thoughtful services, and ways to recharge our water system have the opportunities to do so also.’

[00:03:14] Ivan Gall (Water Resources Department): …I can say with a high level of certainty that our team really has not avoided some of the tough issues. We’ve taken on a lot of those, particularly in the more recent years here and I think we have plenty to document there, but we’ll continue to do that. I’ll continue to make sure that our staff evaluate the situation and proceed accordingly, and if folks are out of compliance with water law, then we’ll deal with that.

[00:03:36] I’m thankful for the resources the legislature has provided us with. We’ve got a crop of new assistant watermasters across the state, as well as a new enforcement section, and that’s paying big dividends, and I’ll be able to provide statistics at that anytime you’d like.

[00:03:49] John Q: From Umatilla County, one of two senators representing all of Eastern Oregon:

[00:03:55] Sen. Bill Hansell (May 29, 2024): We grow over 200 varieties of crops in my district, and all of them have different irrigation needs. Up until 2021, my constituents were able to get temporary transfer approval or verbal approval from the department the year the water was needed. Now it’s taken over a year to issue a simple temporary transfer for my constituents to move water across the road to water another field. What are you going to do over the next 100 days to ensure that simple, temporary transfers are approved within 30 days of receipt of the application?

[00:04:29] Ivan Gall (Water Resources Department): I think you draw out probably one of the biggest things that water users in Oregon are frustrated with, which is our application processing and backlogs associated with those. The Legislature has provided some temporary funding for that to help over the years and that’s been much appreciated. We’ve worked down some of the backlogs, and I have a few numbers here to share if you’re interested.

[00:04:51] But overall, there are structural issues with the water right review process and the ability for folks to protest that. It’s our intention, and this is going to be a more of a long-term, not necessarily in the next 30 days, to take a deep dive onto that application process.

[00:05:08] Within the next 30 days, I can work with our Transfer Section and see what we can do to prioritize temporary transfers that are coming in and move them to the front of the line. That’s going to come at the expense of processing the more permanent transfers there, but that is something that we could do in the short term to speed that up.

[00:05:28] Sen. Bill Hansell (May 29, 2024): In my district, water is available out of the Columbia River from Oct. 1 to April 15. That period is called the shoulder or winter water right period. All of my farmers have been requesting these shoulder winter water rights to enable them to use Columbia River water for a few months to either start or finish the irrigation season without having to pump some of the 30,000-year-old groundwater. This has helped us save precious potable groundwater sources that farmers used to have to pump to start or finish their season…

[00:06:00] Up until again, 2021, our farmers were granted these rights without problems. Since 2022, ORD has sat on over eight permits for years, and found ways to delay or cease issuance of these permits without any rulemaking or formal process to establish the reasoning why.

[00:06:24] Ivan Gall (Water Resources Department): I think one of the reasons that it’s been held up is just confusion.. . It’s important for us when we issue a permit to understand what the beneficial use is, and I think that’s where the confusion comes down. We don’t normally look at irrigation rights as being beneficial during the winter when the ground is frozen, and that’s one of the things we can work through. But certainly at the end of the growing season before winter sets in, and earlier in the spring due to climate change, we’ve got longer growing seasons now, I think we can find some flexibility to work on that.

[00:06:52] Within the first 100 days, I’ll sit down immediately with our staff and identify which permits are hung up and why, and see if we can reach out to those applicants and get some clarification as to what their actual needs are.

[00:07:04] John Q: Asking about aquifer recharge and aquifer storage and recovery (AR/ASR):

[00:07:10] Sen. Bill Hansell (May 29, 2024): Recharge is a major tool in my district to recover depleted aquifers. My district is a leader in the state of Oregon. We are the first AR/ASR project in the history of the nation. Districts do it for fish benefit, and some small farmers do it for supplemental storage. Everywhere we have tested recharge, it has worked for either an environmental or consumptive use purpose.

[00:07:33] We have three test recharge testing efforts… since 2009, all of them received OWRD approvals for testing, the last of which was in 2013. I just found out that our most important test has basically just been denied by OWRD.

[00:07:52] Ivan Gall (Water Resources Department): I would note that this particular recharge location is adjacent to the Umatilla Army Depot site, which is a CERCLA Superfund site there. And so there’s contamination concerns that have concerned both our state agency team and the federal agency team that reviewed the application.

[00:08:08] I’m certainly happy to sit down in the next 100 days and spend time on this particular application and see if there’s flexibility there to work with the applicants at Umatilla County.

[00:08:19] I’m a strong supporter of below-ground storage. I want to see that expanded, but we have to do it in the right place at the right time, so I can’t guarantee that I’m going to get this permit out the door, but I will make sure that we’ve done everything we can to communicate with the applicant and see if there’s flexibility around that.

[00:08:37] Sen. Elizabeth Steiner (May 29, 2024): Mr. Gall, I’m going to support your appointment for this position. I’m doing so for a couple of reasons. First of all, I do believe you are committed to making change. Second of all, the agency desperately needs a permanent director, because otherwise we’re just going to drift forever, and we’re certainly not going to make any progress.

[00:08:54] That being said, you can tell by these questions, and as you know, as you’ve been making the rounds over the past few weeks, there are real concerns about the fact that you come from inside and have been perceived—I’m not making any statements, I’m saying the perception is—that you’re part of the problem and not part of the solution.

[00:09:14] We’re going to be watching—because we care very, very deeply about ensuring that in a state where, as this expression goes, ‘whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting,’ that we have a state system that actually minimizes the fighting and works to serve Oregonians in an efficient, effective, trustworthy way.

[00:09:35] So, more than willing to support your appointment, and we’re going to be watching because we want you to succeed. And we know it’s going to be tough.

[00:09:44] John Q: With committee approval, the appointment moved to the full Senate. On May 31:

[00:09:50] Sen. Lynn Findley (May 29, 2024): I stand in opposition to Mr. Gall for a couple of reasons, several. I spoke with Mr. Gall, I’ve spoken with the governor’s office. Mr. Gall is highly qualified technically for the position. He’s got over 20 years of service in the agency. He’s educated in geology and he knows those processes.

[00:10:11] The issue that I have is: Three years ago, this assembly gave the Oregon Water Resource Department over $500 million because that agency affects every one of us in here. Their policies affect every community and every citizen in Oregon. And there’s, quite frankly, Oregon is fed up. Fed up with the fact that they have water right applications in for decades.

[00:10:35] Fed up with the fact of community water systems not being able to expand. Fed up with the fact of overappropriation of groundwaters.

[00:10:43] So, we, the Legislature, gave them $500 million. I was told at the time, because I was opposed to it, this is the time where we’re either going to put up or shut up. We’re going to give them the money and we’re going to hold them accountable. Well, we gave them the money. Guess what? We didn’t get anything. Their track record has not improved. Their water right applications, their backlogs have not improved. Frustrations are intense.

[00:11:06] And the agency is now turning their back on multiyear efforts through place-based planning for communities to increase their ability to manage their water, provide direction and guidance for the future, and Oregon Water Resources Department is writing regulations to ignore all that work.

[00:11:26] I’ve had a lot of conversation with stakeholders. Many stakeholder groups said, ‘Yes, we’re opposed to Mr. Gall because even though he’s technically qualified, he’s an insider. We need somebody to come in and change the direction of this agency. The agency is not responding to the issues within Oregon.’

[00:11:43] And Mr. Gall’s had an opportunity to do that. He’s been the interim director. He’s been deputy director. He’s been a regional director. He’s got a lot of management experience. He has not lived up to that. He has not done that. We need to have someone come in from the outside to say, I can fix this issue, we’re going to look at it and we’re going to fix this issue and be responsive to Oregon.

[00:12:03] Mr. Gall, just the other day in the Rules Committee, he said, what would you do the first 100 days? ‘I’d go out and listen to constituents and see what’s going on.’ He’s been there for 20 years. He should know that.

[00:12:14] And I read all the conditions from the ‘bipartisan letter of support.’ Well, it’s a bipartisan letter of, ‘We don’t really like this guy and here’s 10 things that he must do to move forward: a 360 view of the agency, reorganize the agency, fix the stuff.’

[00:12:30] He’s been there in a management position for years and has not done so. This is nothing against Mr. Gall. He’s technically highly qualified. We need to have someone from the outside who is a manager, who is a leader, come in, look at the organization and make the appropriate changes. So for that reason, I urge a no vote.

[00:12:50] Sen. Dennis Linthicum (Klamath Falls,. May 29, 2024): The history of Mr. Gall with regard to being a field service administrator is just atrocious. We have water issue problems, water licensing problems from limited licensure to temporary transfers to the things that have been going on in the south with regard to marijuana grows, hemp grows, illegal water usage. All of these things have been on the table. The neighbors and other water right holders and other customers have been calling the office trying to get appropriated monies associated with their water right and justification for a neighboring water right. Nothing ever happens to any consequence. And Mr. Gall has been in charge of all of this.

[00:13:46] Remember way back in 2019, he’s the individual who helped sponsor this water right rule with regard to ‘within 5,280 feet of the surface of the Sprague River.’ A well way out, you know, a mile away could be ‘causing interference.’

[00:14:08] It’s like, show me the science, show me the science, show me the science. There is no science. It’s just a rule. Magically after the OWRD spent $1.5 million trying to defend their no-science rule, they say, ‘Oh, okay, 150 feet.’ Well, that’s really interesting. From 5,280 feet to 150 feet in a snap of fingers, because they ran out of litigation money and this body came and backfilled their litigation money.

[00:14:43] And we’re supposed to think, well, this is how you answer your constituents who have trouble with the rules that are coming out. If you want to read the rule, it’s 690.025.0040, and it says that the water in the Klamath Basin is hydraulically connected, groundwater is hydraulically connected to surface water.

[00:15:08] This can’t be true. When you drive through over Highway 58 and you look at Lookout Reservoir, it’s filled to the brim. And all of that’s coming from the mountains. It’s all coming from snow melt. And that’s on this side of the Cascades. The other side of the Cascades, entirely different.

[00:15:31] And to create this mindset where one size shoe fits all feet does not work. And Ivan Gall is the individual responsible for this one-size-fits-all mentality. It’s a dangerous narrative for our water basins to get trapped in, and all five of OWRD’s water districts are going to get bundled into this menagerie, and it’s going to be tragic for Oregon agriculture.

[00:16:01] I recommend a ‘No’ vote.

[00:16:06] Sen. David Brock Smith (Port Orford): I rise in opposition to this appointment. In our rural districts water is critically important… and we need to be able to not only grow food for Oregonians, but we also need to be able to have the opportunity and access to water for development opportunities for economic development, especially in our rural areas in the state.

[00:16:26] And we need real, science-driven facts when it comes to these decisions because one area of this state, especially when it comes to water, is different than the other and you can’t have just an Oregon cookie cutter when it comes to water policy.

[00:16:41] And so I hope that Mr. Gall will stay engaged as he should, as he’s promised that he will, and that he needs to do more than just go around and just listen to the people in the first 100 days. As being in the agency for the last two decades, he needs to implement what he’s hearing when he does come and talk to my farmers and ranchers and cranberry growers in Southwest Oregon.

[00:17:04] Sen. Bill Hansell (May 31, 2024): I think it’s of interest that three of us senators in particular rise in opposition—Sen. Findley, myself, and Senator Linthicum—who represent probably, I’m going to say 70% of the land mass of the state of Oregon. And that’s where the irrigation takes place. That’s where the water issues are primarily, as far as our economy is concerned.

[00:17:27] And we rise with legitimate concerns because this appointment is absolutely critical. I think Mr. Gall… I think he’s a decent human being. He’s well done as a hydrologist. I understand it’s his expertise, but we need a manager…

[00:17:42] One of my jobs is to represent the stakeholders, the farmers, the people in my district that need an effective Water Resources Department. We don’t have it. And I question whether or not we’re going to get it based upon past history and the gentleman that is being put forward as the chair. So I’ll be a no vote.

[00:18:06] Sen. Elizabeth Steiner (May 31, 2024): Colleagues, I am not the most logical person to be actively involved in water issues, living in a district that doesn’t normally deal with those. But I have been. I’ve spent the past nine years working with colleagues out in Eastern Oregon on a really major series of water projects in the Columbia Basin and in what’s commonly called LUBGWMA (Lower Umatilla Basin Ground Water Management Area).

[00:18:28] And I’ve had a large number of dealings with OWRD, largely due to some of the frustrations. So when this appointment came up, as you can imagine, I got a lot of calls about it from people I’ve been working with out there expressing a lot of the concerns that have been raised by my colleagues who spoke previously.

[00:18:47] So, as a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with Mr. (Geoffrey) Huntington, the Governor’s Senior Natural Resources Policy Advisor, about this. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Mr. Gall. We asked some pretty solid questions in committee. And I’m going to repeat what I said in committee.

[00:19:05] I’m not 100 percent convinced that Mr. Gall can effect the kinds of changes that he says he’s going to effect at OWRD. What I do know is that the first search for a new director failed completely and the second search resulted in some challenges bringing in somebody from outside due to the state’s compensation structure.

[00:19:27] Mr. Gall has been in a leadership position in this agency for some time, and the agency has been drifting since Mr. (Tom) Byler stepped down, and it is really important. We cannot have change in that agency without a permanent director.

[00:19:43] Some people have said, well, why don’t we do an interim, why don’t we do a term appointment? Well, if we did that, we would be setting him up to fail. Because people in the agency who’ve been perfectly happy with the way things are going would have no reason not to just wait him out.

[00:19:57] I am going to believe Mr. Gall, I’m going to take him at his word, and I’m going to take the governor’s team at their word, that they are going to be watching this like a hawk. And he is going to be on a very, very short leash.

[00:20:10] And the Legislature, I believe, will be watching this like a hawk also. I will be asking my colleagues around the state, whether he’s been out there visiting with the people who are intimately involved in these complex water issues around the state, I will be asking them to tell us whether they have seen the changes that have been promised over the next six to 12 months and if not, I don’t think Mr. Gall is going to last very long as director.

[00:20:35] But we have to give him a chance and we have to give this agency a chance to get back on its feet, to change direction, and to truly be in service of the people of the state of Oregon who as some of my colleagues have mentioned, are all affected by the work of this department.

[00:20:52] So I will be a yes vote today for this appointment, and I will continue to watch closely to ensure this department is doing exactly what it should, which is moving forward with the best available evidence, the best available science, and robust community engagement in ways that are truly designed to be a service agency.

[00:21:12] Sen. Kate Lieber: It is clear that this department has challenges. It is clear from the discussion that we have had here today. It is also clear to me that the governor’s office understands those challenges, that this body understands those challenges and expectations of Mr. Gall have been made known in a way that I have never seen before with a director coming in. Like, he is on notice.

[00:21:39] John Q: Ivan Gall named director at Water Resources, but the clock is ticking, and he may only have six months to show that he can turn his department around.

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