Water resources director is confirmed by a split Oregon Senate

The Oregon Department of Water Resources finally has a permanent director after more than 18 months, but it took a divided Oregon Senate to confirm Ivan Gall, a veteran of more than 25 years at the agency.

Gov. Tina Kotek’s nomination of Gall was approved May 31 on a 17-10 party-line vote, all Democrats voting for it and all Republicans against it. Three Republicans were not present.

Gall has been the interim deputy director of the agency and was the manager of its groundwater division from 2011 to 2016.

This was the third try to fill a job that has been vacant since Tom Byler left the agency in September 2022 to return to law practice. Some of his clients are agricultural water users. According to an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting, the agency had approved permits for new wells in areas that already were overdrawn.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Office, whose analysts scour agency budgets, the Water Resources Department has about 250 positions and a two-year budget of $272 million, up from $207 million in the previous cycle. But the budget share from the tax-supported general fund has risen in the past decade from 49% to 76.4%, reflecting the fact that the agency lacks a way to collect money for water management, as opposed to applications for water rights.

In its analysis of agency budgets issued after the 2023 Legislature concluded action, the office said this about the department, which has shifted its work because water rights exceed supplies in many rivers and streams, and users also pump groundwater faster than it can be replenished in many aquifers.

“The effect of climate change on Oregon’s water supply is in an early stage of analysis requiring a close look at how it may affect water rights, crop production and migration patterns,” the legislative budget experts wrote.

“Also due to the near full allocation of water, a significant body of work has developed in the processing of water right transfers. This has also led to a large backlog of protests to both decisions made on transfer applications and on new water right applications.”

Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, led the committee that advanced Gall’s nomination.

“He has the background we need to serve the state of Oregon,” she said. “We asked him some tough questions. We put some stakes in the ground about the things the Senate is going to need to see as his directorship goes forward.”

Her reference was to a letter signed by Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, the chair and vice chair of the relevant committee in the House. Helm is a lawyer and Owens is a farmer. They endorsed his confirmation but laid out 10 points on which he should be judged.

“Expectations of Mr. Gall have been made known in a way I have never seen before with a director coming in. He is on notice. But this department needs stability … and instability is showing.”

Sen. Lynn Findley, a Republican from Vale, said he wasn’t buying it.

“I read all the conditions in this letter of ‘bipartisan support,’ but it’s a letter saying we don’t really like this guy, and here’s 10 things he must do to move forward,” Findley said.

Findley criticized the agency for its backlog of applications.

“We are opposed to Mr. Gall because even though he is technically qualified, he is an insider,” he said. “We need somebody to come in and change the direction of this agency. This agency is not responding to issues within Oregon — and Mr. Gall has had an opportunity to do that.”

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, said Kotek is aware that the agency must improve its performance.

“He is going to be on a short leash. The Legislature will be watching like a hawk” as well as the governor and her staff.

“We have to give this agency a chance to get back on its feet and change direction and to be truly in service to this state.”

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, said Gall appears to be “a nice guy,” has the technical credentials as a hydrologist and gave “adequate” responses to questions. But he too said the agency needs to change.

“I question whether or not we are going to get it,” he said, “based on history and the gentleman that is being put forward.”

Forestry pick

A second potential controversy was averted as the Senate confirmed the nominations of Bob Van Dyk and Heath Curtiss to the Oregon Board of Forestry among a larger group of appointees to state boards and commissions. Kotek first withdrew them — some environmentalists objected to Curtiss — but then allowed the names to go forward.

Van Dyk was a former Oregon policy director of the Wild Salmon Center. He will serve out the term of Chandra Ferrari, an environmental lawyer who now works for the governor after a stint at the Fish and Wildlife Department. Curtiss is the general counsel for Hampton Lumber, and he will complete the term of Karla Chambers, a Hampton board member and a co-owner of Stahlbush Island Farms in Corvallis.

When the Legislature revamped the makeup of the Board of Forestry in 1987 — the board sets policies for state and private forest lands, but not federal lands — the law limited to three the number of members with a financial interest in the industry. The board recently adopted a habitat conservation plan, called for in a 2021 agreement brokered by then-Gov. Kate Brown, that has drawn criticism for its projected reduction in logging. 

pwong@pamplinmedia.com

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