Our man in Salem: Corn keeps the focus local as member of state water board

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

One philosophy sums up why Bruce Corn does what he does.

“There are a lot of people who serve and give back and that is what makes a community,” he said.

Corn may know a little bit more about giving back than most and nothing exemplifies that more then his work on the Oregon Water Resources Commission.

Corn, who already finished one term on the commission, was recently re-appointed to another four-year stint by Gov. Kate Brown.

“I am one of seven members and I represent Eastern Oregon. There are just two of us now on the commission that are full-time farmers,” he said.

Members include five people who represent a specific region in the state and two at-large representatives. Each member is nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Oregon Senate. The commission plays an important role in water management in Oregon, he said.

“The Legislature passes laws and many times there is a rule-making process to implement those laws and that is one of the things the commission does,” he said.

From groundwater to surface water topics to drought declarations, the board tackles an array of water issues. For example, the commission can designate a portion of the state as a critical groundwater area. The commission can and has agreed to limit the drilling of wells in areas where ground water supplies are dropping.

Another good example of what the commission does is its effort to approve rules to expand “reservations of water” in the Malheur Basin. “Reservations of water” are stored surface water used for future agriculture economic development.

Corn said rule making is “pretty involved.” It includes, he said, public hearings, meetings with local stakeholders where the rules will be implemented and gathering input from Oregon Water Resource Department staff.

“We try to listen to the citizens and come to a rule that best serves the whole. Sometimes that is hard to do because there is a diversity of opinions,” he said.

A case in point is the still pending effort to classify all water – ground and surface – of the Smith River watershed in Curry County. The commission, which amassed more than 2,000 comments on the proposal, received a petition to withdraw all the unappropriated waters from future use. Instream use, which concerns water flowing directly in the stream channel, was exempted. New rules could limit the uses of the surface water. That, in turn, may impact mining and well drilling.

What works in Curry County regarding water policy may not translate to what is a best practice in Malheur County, Corn said.

“Curry County is having an abundance of water but they can have drought conditions in a totally different way than us,” he said.

Corn, a Cairo Junction farmer, said water drives the economy in places such as Malheur County.

“We don’t have anything without water. Water is our heartbeat. And there are a lot of competing interests for water. And, of course, we’ve just come through several years of drought and up to this year we had four consecutive years of drought here,” he said.

It is important for areas like Malheur County to have a seat at the state water resources table, he said.

“For agriculture, it is the lifeblood,” he said.

Corn has served as chairman of the Owyhee Irrigation District and is a member of several other area agriculture organizations including the Snake River Sugar Company Board and the American Sugar Growers Board.

Corn said it can be a logistical challenge being a member of a board that meets four times a year in Salem. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think it is really important to represent our (Eastern Oregon’s) interest,” he said.

Corn’s son, Dan, is also a farmer and represents the fifth generation to make a living off the land. Corn said farming in Malheur County was something he always wanted to do.

“I have no desire to do anything else and I like the community,” he said.

Corn said one of the difficult issues he tackles revolves around the rulemaking process of the board.

“Many times, you are totally dependent on staff reports and we have an excellent staff but you always wonder if you made the right decision and if you had enough information. I worry about that quite regularly,” said Corn.

During his next four years on the board Corn said he hopes he can continue to be an effective advocate for farmers and others.

“My biggest concern is to try to be a voice of balance for those who live off the land that they may not be forgotten,” he said.