A Change In Groundwater Allocation Rules Is Long Overdue

By the Source Editorial Board  |  June 5, 2024  |  The Source Weekly

This year has been better than many, but the effects of years of drought are still among us.

You’ve likely heard the doom-tales: aquifers depleted, rivers low, wells going dry. Over the past 20 years or so, the West has experienced a megadrought that hasn’t been matched in 500 years. And this time, unlike the 1500s, the problem is made worse by the advent of human-caused climate change. This year has been better than many, but the effects of years of drought are still among us in the form of habitat degradation and longtime farmers and ranchers’ loss of long-reliable water sources.

Against this backdrop comes news from the Oregon Water Resources Department, signaling a massive change in the way it will handle new groundwater permits in the future. As was reported in last week’s Source Weekly, OWRD plans to put new rules in place that could limit the number of new wells that get dug in the state. Under a pending rule change, OWRD would only grant a new permit or license for groundwater or surface water if the department can determine that there is enough water to support that new infrastructure. This is a major change to how things have been done in Oregon up to now.

Previously, if there wasn’t enough data about a particular place and its water availability, the OWRD’s policy was to approve the application, in something of a good-faith method. With this change, the data needs to show definitively that there is more water to be had. The rule change is aimed, at least in part, at mitigating problems currently seen in areas around the state, where the digging of new wells has caused other peoples’ established wells to decline.

Here in the Deschutes Basin, we’ve had a similar plan in place for quite some time. The Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program was “developed to provide for new ground water uses while maintaining scenic waterway and instream water right flows in the Deschutes Basin.” It’s the program that has caused long, ongoing battles, like the one that continues over water access (and the fish and wildlife mitigation plan) at Thornburgh Resort.

In an era of megadrought and ongoing climate change, it’s the right move on behalf of OWRD — albeit one that is long overdue. But if it sounds like something that could bump up against the state’s other big goals — namely, building adequate amounts of housing for the people who live here — it’s because it does. That’s not going to be easy. To that end, cities and those who live in them have a part to play in achieving more efficiency in their systems. In a description of the new groundwater allocation rulemaking, OWRD outlines steps cities can take to use less water overall. You may have heard of one of those water-saving measures recently, when the City of Bend began to issue rebates to homeowners for removing their lawns in favor of xeriscaping. That program filled quickly.

Its indoor rebate program, meanwhile, offers, “money-saving opportunities on new high-efficiency indoor equipment, such as washing machines, toilets, and hot water recirculators,” while the outdoor rebate program, “features high-efficiency irrigation devices, like drip systems, nozzles, and controllers.” These programs can begin to make a dent in water usage at the residential level — though of course, looking out at seas of lush green grass at schools and parks in a high desert landscape reminds us there are many more opportunities for tightening up on water use overall.

This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Source in Bend and Central Oregon on June 5th, 2024.