Klamath County has struggled with persistent drought and lawmakers have directed millions to residents who have had their wells dry up. (Photo provided by the governor’s office via Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Oregon Water Resources Department must update its 68-year-old rules for permitting new wells or double down on regulating existing ones, department officials said. 

If it doesn’t, the growing problem of the state’s depleted groundwater reserves “is going to get very expensive,” said department director Doug Woodcock.

Many of Oregon’s 20 groundwater basins are being sucked dry faster than water can naturally be replaced, according to the agency. This is an issue across the West, where drought, river diversions and groundwater depletion have left parts of seven states scrambling to ration what water is available to them from the Colorado River Basin.

Woodcock presented updates to Oregon’s groundwater permitting laws at a hearing last week by the Oregon House Committee on Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources and Water. The agency – with input from farmers, environmental groups and well owners – has worked for more than a year on proposed rule changes that would bring Oregon water permitting laws up to date. Most importantly, the agency is attempting to define a “stable level” of groundwater and has committed to withholding new water rights in areas where the level is not deemed stable. 

Not everyone is happy. Some farmers and the water districts that serve them fear it’s a moratorium on all new groundwater allocations around the state. Mark Landauer, a lobbyist for the Special Districts Association of Oregon, said the state water agency’s proposed changes are too broad. 

“We believe that we should be looking at basin-specific rules rather than this one-size-fits-all approach,” he said. 

State Reps. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, and Mark Owens, R-Crane, tried earlier this year to do just that. The lawmakers proposed a bill that would direct the state water resources department to stop issuing any new water rights until officials could provide an inventory of how much groundwater was left in each of the state’s 20 basins. The bill died in committee but set the stage for many of the changes the water resources department is proposing.

Oregon’s 1955 Groundwater Act requires the state to maintain stable levels of groundwater but does not define what a stable level is. The new rules would define stability as maintaining spring water levels year over year. The water level after a winter recharge period and before summer irrigation should return to about the level it was the year before. 

“So we’ll pump down groundwater systems in the summertime, but we always want those to come back up after the wet season,” said Justin Iverson, a groundwater manager at the water agency. New wells could not be permitted if they were found to diminish the quantity of surface water and instream water needed by the senior water rights holders.

Iverson said if permitting rules don’t change, it’s possible up to 50,000 Oregon wells that are 50 feet below the water table or less could go dry, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to replace.

In the last three years, the water resources department has received more than 1,000 complaints about wells run dry. Many are in areas where aquifers have been overdrawn after years of permitting with little regard for how much water is left, Woodcock, the agency director, said.

“What we’re concerned about is with the increasing summer temperatures, increasing water uses, that 1,000 wells is going to turn into many thousands,” he told the committee. 

A coalition of environmental groups called the Oregon Water Partnership expressed relief the agency is willing to practice caution in permitting. The coalition includes The Nature Conservancy, Oregon Environmental Council, WaterWatch of Oregon, Wild Salmon Center. Trout Unlimited, Environmental Defense Fund and Sustainable Northwest.

“The state has historically allocated groundwater rights without knowing whether water was really available,” said Zach Freed, sustainable water program Director for The Nature Conservancy, in a statement.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

Leave a comment

Commenting Policy: Full legal name required to comment (no nicknames or usernames); no personal abuse of other writers or content; maximum length of 100 words; no foul language; comments will be reviewed by the editor before appearing online. Click on the "Commenting Policy" link found at the bottom of every page for the full guidelines.