Audit: Oregon’s water watchdog agency is understaffed, overworked, has no plan for future

Audit: Oregon’s water watchdog agency is understaffed, overworked, has no plan for future
by Andrew Theen
The Oregonian/OregonLive

December 15, 2016

Oregon’s Water Resources Department doesn’t have enough inspectors to enforce the state’s water laws, has no “clear understanding” of how much water is being used statewide and has no plan for the future, according to an audit released Thursday.

Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins says her auditing team’s review shows that Oregon falls short on several key benchmarks. The water resources agency doesn’t have enough inspectors to examine the thousands of wells built each year, which can pose a threat to the underground water supply. Those positions are often vulnerable when budgets are lean, the audit found, and Oregon well inspectors are not subject to the same licensing rigor that occurs in many states.

“It is essential that the agency pays more attention to protecting future water resources,” Atkins said in a statement, “and I hope that the Legislature and the Governor’s office will work with WRD to better align funding with its goals.

“Keeping tabs on current water use and supply is critical to understanding and preparing for the needs of future generations of Oregonians,” she said.

The scathing audit comes months after a four-part series by The Oregonian/OregonLive highlighted long-standing staffing and oversight gaps at the agency.

Oregon’s cities, businesses and agricultural industry may need an additional 424 billion gallons by 2050. The state has 110,000 miles of rivers and streams, 1,400 named lakes and an underground network of connected reservoirs that provide water to millions of Oregonians.

The audit says the agency’s 160 staffers are stretched thin and often unable to “perform meaningful and in-depth analyses” of the state’s groundwater basins. The agency studied just one-third of those basins, and the department doesn’t have a centralized database to share resources, auditors found.

Collecting data isn’t the significant issue, as the department “focuses a great deal of time and effort on collecting water supply data across the state.”

“Some of this data have not been analyzed or made available across the agency to help make informed permitting and water rights decisions,” auditors said.

Before 1999, the resources agency had a division that focused on conservation, future planning and communicating with the Environmental Protection Agency and other bodies. But that division was eliminated in 1999, auditors said.

The agency is largely flying blind — just 20 percent of water rights holders are required to report how much water they use annually, and most agricultural users — which account for more than 85 percent of water usage — don’t report their consumption.

“As a result, WRD does not have a clear understanding of how much water is actually being used,” auditors said.

Also, the models for water availability are based on data that are “at least 30 years old.”

Auditors recommended increased work with the governor’s office and state lawmakers on all fronts. The state watchdogs offered a slew of policy changes focused on conservation and sustainability. The department should “develop a long-term plan for the agency that prioritizes its responsibilities and sets clear, measurable goals for water sustainability.”

Gov. Kate Brown’s recommended budget released two weeks ago included a request for $1.8 million in additional spending to double the state’s capacity to study its groundwater supply. Brown’s budget also included an overall 9 percent increase in state support for the agency.

An update to the state’s Integrated Water Resources Strategy, which was created in 2012, is expected in 2017.

Thomas Byler, the agency’s director, said he agreed with most of the recommendations provided by auditors. He said in a response to the audit that “more needs to be done” to encourage conservation and keep water rights issues on the Legislature and governor’s office’s radar.

But a lot comes down to money. “Resource constraints will continue to present challenges to progress in many areas highlighted in the report,” Byler wrote.

The state Legislature meets in February, 2017.