Rights to Waters Still Being Contested
Byline: LARRY BACON The Register-Guard
GARDINER - In spite of a withdrawal by two of the parties contesting a state decision to award International Paper Co. permanent water rights on two central coast lakes, WaterWatch of Oregon continues its opposition to the move. Now the issue is likely to be decided by a state hearings officer later this year.
"The big issue is whether someone can get a certified water right when they have no plans to use the water," WaterWatch attorney Karen Russell said Friday.
The water in question is in Siltcoos and Tahkenitch lakes. In 1960, the company secured temporary rights to use the two lakes as a water supply for the paper mill at Gardiner. IP has long operated dams on the outlets of the two lakes to impound water for the mill.
Tahkenitch Lake served as the primary water source for the mill, which used to use about 15 million gallons of water per day. Siltcoos Lake was a secondary source, and was rarely tapped. But IP's use of the water dropped dramatically when the mill closed in 1998.
Even after the closure, the company continues to operate the dams - releasing water for salmon runs, keeping lake levels up in the summer for recreation and dropping the levels in the fall to accommodate winter flooding.
Before the mill closed, IP began a lengthy process of converting its temporary water rights on the two lakes into permanent rights that, under Oregon law, might be sold to another party or perhaps transferred to a public entity for tax advantages. About a year ago, the state awarded certificates for permanent water rights to the company.
But WaterWatch and others - including Dunes City - took advantage of an appeals period in which the certificates could be contested. Although WaterWatch argues that it makes no sense to grant the rights for a publicly owned asset such as the lake water for a use that has been discontinued, IP attorney Ron Howell of Memphis, Tenn., said the mill very well may open again.
Howell said Friday that IP spends considerable money every year keeping the mill's permits current and the equipment in operating condition so that if a decision is made to reopen the mill it will be able to do so.
In some other communities, IP has closed mills and announced that they would not reopen, Howell said.
"But for the Gardiner mill, that decision simply hasn't been reached," he said.
The real question to be decided by a state hearings officer is whether the Oregon Department of Water Resources made the proper decision in deciding whether to grant the water certificates, Howell said.
Dunes City and John Carlson, a Dunes City area resident, earlier this month decided to formally withdraw their opposition to the granting of the water certificates. City officials and Carlson said their main concern is that continued opposition might lead to the company losing its water rights and the ability to operate the dams.
They said an adverse decision for IP could lead to the removal of the dams or their gates remaining permanently open - a situation that would lead to a dramatic drawdown of the lake waters, especially during the summer. …