Water Resources Department Records Guide

Agency History - Historical Narrative

Government attempts to control the appropriation and distribution of water in Oregon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries proved to be unsatisfactory. The state was unsuccessful in carrying out the provisions of the Carey Act which the U.S. Congress passed in 1894 to grant arid federal land in western states to settlers.

The need for water laws and an office to oversee the state's water resources culminated in the creation of the Office of State Engineer in 1905 and in the Water Appropriation Act of 1909 which declared that all water in the state belonged to the public. The act also delegated to the state engineer the responsibility of regulating and developing the state's water resources.

The following discussion uses a functional approach to trace the development of laws and policies related to water in Oregon.

Dot Reclamation and Irrigation
Responsibility for irrigation and reclamation projects was transferred from the State Land Board to the state engineer, and finally, in 1909, to the Desert Land Board which was created to oversee reclamation under the Carey Act. Under the Carey Act, a settler who wished to apply for land contracted with an irrigation company to provide water. Upon proof that the land was being settled, cultivated, and irrigated, the settler could receive title to the land. At first the Desert Land Board worked to assist in financing and completing early reclamation projects that had faced difficulties or failed. The board also entered into new contracts for reclamation projects.

A related commission, the Irrigation and Drainage Securities Commission, was created in 1917 to oversee the contracts executed by irrigation and drainage districts.

In 1927, the functions of the Desert Land Board and the Irrigation and Drainage Securities Commission were merged to form the State Reclamation Commission which was authorized to investigate and make recommendations concerning irrigation and drainage districts. In 1955, the Reclamation Commission was abolished and its functions were transferred to the State Water Resources Board.

Dot Hydroelectric Power
With the adoption of a code of water laws in 1909, all water in Oregon was declared to belong to the public. The Water Appropriation Act outlined the framework for appropriating water. Originally, fees for the development of power were paid to the State Water Board; in 1911 the fees went to the state engineer.

In the 1920s and 1930s the Legislative Assembly continued to pass laws for water use and control and laws for withdrawals of water for special purposes such as municipal, recreation, aesthetics, pollution control, and hydroelectric power. In 1931, the Hydroelectric Commission was created to license power projects and to investigate water resources for conservation and development. In 1961, these functions were transferred to the state engineer.

Dot Administrative Organization
In addition to its main functions of administering reclamation and hydroelectric programs, the state engineer had duties relating to conservation, flood control, and irrigation. The Willamette River Basin Commission, created in 1939, studied and managed navigation, irrigation, and flood control in the Willamette River Basin. The State Irrigation Board created water conservation districts in 1947. In 1951, the Upper Columbia River Basin Commission, headquartered in Pendleton, supervised public improvement projects in that basin.

The state engineer and the commissions were not the only agencies responsible for water resources. In addition, there were irrigation, drainage, and flood control districts, reclamation projects, Sanitary Authority, and Fish and Game Commissions. In 1955, following a major review of water legislation and policy, the Legislative Assembly passed the Water Appropriation Act and created the State Water Resources Board. The Willamette River Basin Commission, Upper Columbia River Basin Commission, Irrigation Board, and Reclamation Commission were abolished and their duties transferred to the State Water Resources Board which was given the task of formulating programs for the use and control of the state's water.

Further restructuring of the water agency occurred in 1975 and 1985. In 1975, the State Water Resources Board and the State Engineer's Office were merged to form the Water Resources Department. In 1985, the Water Resources Department was restructured and the Water Resources Commission was created to oversee all activities of the department.

Dot Water Rights
Initiation of Water Rights
The system of recording water rights in Oregon originated with placer miners who posted notices claiming a certain quantity of water at its point of diversion from the natural channel for use on their claims. During this period, many streams were diverted entirely into other watersheds for mining or irrigation, and to create power for flour mills, woolen mills, and other factories.

The passage of Oregon's first unified water code in 1909 (L.1909, Ch. 216) introduced state control over the right to use water. The code dismissed the concept of "riparian rights," the right to use water because it flowed through an individual's property, and replaced it with the idea of prior appropriation--first in time is first in right. Water users were required to file an application with the state engineer and include maps and drawings of important water diversion structures. Applications were also required to prove they were using the water "beneficially" for stock watering, irrigation, or fire control before a permit was issued. By limiting approved usage to defined parameters, monopolization of water resources was prohibited and the barter and sale of water rights was largely eliminated. (L. 1909, Ch. 216)

Adjudication of Existing Water Rights
In addition to providing a centralized and regulated method for issuing new water rights, the water code of 1909 prescribed adjudication procedures to inventory and investigate pre-1909 water rights claims. A "Board of Control" consisting of the state engineer and two appointees of the governor was established as the preliminary arbiter of claims for existing rights. These rulings were either upheld or denied in the circuit court in which the right was claimed.

The "Board of Control" was replaced in 1913 by the State Water Board, assuming the same functions and containing the same membership. (L. 1913, p. 82) By 1984 vested water rights in approximately 67% of the state, primarily the area east of the Cascade Mountains, had been determined in 91 adjudication proceedings. (1983-1984 Rpt.)

The 1909 water code divided the state into water districts with local enforcement of water rights and investigations of claims assigned to watermasters. Watermasters were appointed by the state engineer and funded by the county in which the work was performed. Their duties included regulating and adjusting headgates; enforcing orders of the state engineer, court decrees, and permits; filing copies of all related paperwork; making inspections of structures; supervising the installation of hydrometric devices; and protecting and policing the water rights of property owners. (L. 1909, Ch. 216)

Dot Ground Water
The regulation and protection of ground water resources by the office of state engineer began in 1929 in the counties east of the Cascade Mountains. All major users of ground water were required to obtain permission from the state engineer by proving "beneficial" usage. Stock watering, watering of lawns and gardens, and household use of ground water was exempted. (L.1927, Ch. 410) Regulation of ground water resources was added to the area west of the Cascade Mountains by the Ground Water Act of 1955. (L. 1955, Ch. 708)

Major administrative duties relating to ground water regulation by the Office of State Engineer and the subsequent Water Resources Department included answering public inquiries relating to ground water and water wells; receiving, reviewing, and processing water well reports; collecting basic ground water data; licensing water well constructors; outlining ground water basin resources; determining critical ground water areas; publishing ground water information singly or in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey; and providing hydrogeological investigation and review of solid waste disposal sites and hazardous waste and sub-surface ground water quality problem areas in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

In 1982 the Water Resources Department adopted rules to provide standards and procedures for the development, use, and management of low temperature geothermal resources, a new technology with power generating capability. (1983-1984 Rpt., p. 23)

Dot Regulation of Dams and Hydraulic Structures
The regulation and inspection of dams by the office of the state engineer began in 1911 with the requirement that owners pay an annual license fee based on the amount of water horsepower generated. (L. 1911, Ch. 236) Fees collected were placed in the "survey fund" which was used to finance the collection of streamflow data. The state engineer was given the authority in 1927 to inspect the plans and construction of any dam, canal, ditch, or other structure more than ten feet high or holding more than three million gallons of water. If the dam or structure did not meet specifications, he was authorized to interrupt construction or dismantle completed structures. (1927, Ch. 353) By 1984, there were 160 hydroelectric projects under license or permit from the Water Resources Department excluding federal projects, which did not require state permits or certification.

Dot Policy / Planning
Beginning in 1895, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) conducted hydrometric work in conjunction with the state engineer and the subsequent Department of Water Resources. In 1905, the Legislative Assembly appropriated matching funds for USGS "streamgaging" work. (1905-1906 Rpt., p. 13) Legislative approval was required for each agreement until 1931 when the state engineer was authorized to singly enter into agreements with the USGS on an ongoing basis to investigate and survey surface and ground water resources. (L. 1931, Ch. 297) By the end of 1984, the Water Resources Department was operating 274 surface water gaging stations and sixty precipitation storage projects to measure rainfall.

Snow surveys were taken to predict streamflow, and thus irrigation potential, and to forecast flood potential. From 1928-1936 the state engineer established snow survey stations manned by local watermasters at the headwaters of streams considered to represent average conditions of a watershed basin. In 1936, the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Engineering purchased equipment and built shelter cabins for the use of personnel. By the 1950s the U.S. Soil Conservation Service managed the survey stations and largely funded their operation.

Delta On to current organization

State Archives • 800 Summer St. NE • Salem, OR 97310