Oregon renews search for a water leader after ‘disappointing’ first round
Managing Oregon’s water supply is a big job and Gov. Tina Kotek is struggling to fill it.
The director of the Oregon Water Resources Department collects a six-figure salary and wields power that could reverberate for decades. A long list of water crises — from dying springs and dry wells to decimated fish runs and groundwater pollution — are igniting political pressure to change state water management. That’s while regulators are in the process of rewriting their rules for drilling new wells and reckoning with the steep costs of dwindling aquifers.
As agency staff have warned that tens of thousands of wells could dry up, they’ve been without a permanent leader for more than a year.
When recruiters first posted the director job over the summer, only 12 people applied, leaving state officials unimpressed. Now, Oregon is advertising again and stressing one attribute first: “courageous leadership.”
Whoever Kotek ultimately appoints to replace interim Director Doug Woodcock will be in the middle of intense water conflicts worsened by drought, climate change and development.
“We’re in a bad spot,” said Rep. Mark Owens, a Republican state lawmaker from Harney County who vice-chairs the House Committee On Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources and Water.
“We need someone that doesn’t fit the normal mold of what a water resources department director has been in the Western states…The water resources department as a whole agency needs to change,” Owens said.
Last year, OPB reported on how under former Director Tom Byler, the state had continued to approve new wells in areas that were already overdrawn, leaving irreversible damage. Byler resigned in September 2022, and returned to private practice as a lawyer. Some of his most high-profile clients are agricultural water users.
The state initially advertised the job to replace Byler in July, but Kotek’s advisors were underwhelmed by the response, according to scoring charts and other internal reviews of applicants obtained by OPB.
“Of the 12 applicants, only two have attributes sufficient to even meet minimum qualifications,” senior natural resources policy advisor Geoff Huntington wrote in an email.
“Ugh. So disappointing,” replied Berri Leslie, the state’s chief operating officer.
Officials said they’ve now hired an independent consulting firm, Motus Recruitment and Staffing, to attract a larger pool. The governor’s office is looking for someone who is not only versed in state water laws, but also the impacts of a changing climate and tribal water rights, scoring criteria show.
Kotek spokesperson Anca Matica declined to specify when the administration hopes to fill the job.
“Oregon’s environmental priorities require continued and urgent action,” Matica said in an emailed statement. “The Governor is seeking a Water Resources Department Director who can heed the call to action this challenging reality requires.”
The first round of recruitment closed in August. It included applications from two people with state government experience managing natural resources — OWRD’s interim deputy director Ivan Gall, and natural resources consultant Jason Miner.
Gall has worked at the water department for more than 25 years, including five years as the manager of its groundwater section, from 2011 to 2016.
Miner was a natural resources policy director under former Gov. Kate Brown. Before that, he served as the executive director of 1,000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit land use watchdog.
Other applicants had less experience in state water policy, ranging from an Oregon Department of Revenue employee to a former grocery store manager. State officials did not disclose the names of four applicants because those candidates requested confidentiality when they applied.
The state provided OPB with resumes, and a redacted version of its evaluations, withholding the names attached to each score.
Notably, all the candidates except for one person scored zero points for showing a “demonstrated understanding of the interests of underrepresented communities in the management of water, and the potential for addressing existing inequities,” according to the reviews.
Overall, two candidates scored notably higher than all the others. Those two candidates have been encouraged to reapply, emails show.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.