Drainage district landowners concerned about potential wetland mitigation site in district

COURTESY - A map included in NEXT Renewable Fuels application to the Department of State Lands shows the planned wetland mitigation site.Tensions between NEXT Renewable Fuels leaders and opponents of the planned billion-dollar biofuel production facility have risen as the company nears permit approval.

NEXT's proposed facility at Port Westward would sit on 118 acres of wetlands. To mitigate the impacts, NEXT is required to create or improve wetlands nearby.

Neighbors say the 484-acre mitigation site NEXT selected could prove devastating to the Beaver Drainage and Irrigation District.

Chris Efird, NEXT's chairman, said that the property NEXT chose was the only viable option by Department of State Lands standards.

"We chose to buy the land, but it wasn't like it was a beauty pageant with four contestants," Efird told port commissioners last week.

Commissioner Chip Bubl expressed concern over how the mitigation site would impact the complex drainage district. None of the Department of State Lands representatives who attended the port's meeting on the topic were able to immediately provide examples of other large mitigation sites installed within agricultural drainage districts.

The head of the Beaver Drainage District, Warren Seely, said the district "is highly frustrated by the lack of information" provided by NEXT in regards to the mitigation area, despite the district's board meeting with NEXT and port staff every other week for months.

Efird said Seely's comments were "simply not accurate" and that more information hadn't been provided because the exact design for the mitigation area was only 15% complete at most.

Seely said much of the information the drainage district had wanted from NEXT was not provided until it was submitted to DSL.

"Now we have been left scrambling to try and meet any sort of timeline for getting comments in on the DSL application," Seely said.

NEXT sent a letter to landowners in the Beaver Drainage District in mid-September, requesting feedback on the preliminary mitigation plans developed with Stewardship Solutions.

Dan Cary, the region's aquatic resource coordinator with the Department of State Lands, said that "there is no done deal about the mitigation."

"The only thing we've accepted is the location of it, and the concept of it," Cary said.

Cary said the selected site "had its problems for us at first." For mitigation that involves enhancing existing wetlands, the agency likes to see the wetlands restored to what they were like historically.

"To enhance the hydrology of that wetland historically, you'd have to take the dikes out and let the Columbia River flood through there," Cary said.

Cary added, "The big reason we were comfortable with (the site), that we didn't feel there was a risk, is this drainage district is a strong drainage district. There's a lot of infrastructure within the drainage district."

But with surrounding agricultural lands, the mitigation site will have to be carefully designed to ensure that it doesn't flood neighboring property and doesn't get dried out by the drainage district.

Other permits submitted to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality are still under review.

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