Central Oregon Cities Poke Holes in State Plans to Tighten Groundwater Rules

By Emily Cureton Cook  |  Oct. 2, 2023  |  Oregon Public Broadcasting

Oregon water managers are considering the most consequential water policy changes the state has seen in decades. These changes would crack down on new groundwater rights, making it more difficult for people to drill wells. Advocates say this is critical to protect the environment and ensure future water supplies, but opponents, such as leaders from Central Oregon’s fast-growing cities, say the state is going too far.

What do state water officials want to change?

The Oregon Water Resources Department wants to overhaul its rules for issuing new groundwater rights. Under the proposed changes, applicants would have to show at least five years of data to prove the groundwater is stable in the area they want to access. State law since the 1950s has called on water regulators to protect “reasonably stable” aquifer levels, but officials have never defined what that means, until now.

Regulators also want updated criteria to define how wells could impact surface water. That’s because wells siphon away flows that would otherwise bubble up to feed rivers and streams. Oregon’s past approach to groundwater rights was much more permissive. For decades, regulators allowed people to pump without knowing if water was sustainably available. As a result, farmers in some places take more than nature replenishes.

Who’s cheering for the changes?

A coalition of environmental groups are endorsing the proposed reforms.

“It’s really long overdue and very badly needed,” WaterWatch’s Lisa Brown said at a recent meeting of the Oregon Water Resources Commission. “Although we think the [draft] rules could be stronger in some places, they do create a groundwater allocation system that’s in line with science.”

Brown’s organization has long brought attention to regions where overpumping wreaks havoc on entire ecosystems, such as the Harney Basin in Eastern Oregon. Think of dried up springs, disappearing plants and animals, and truly long-lasting damages. People with domestic wells are also pressing for action because aquifer level declines can make it unsafe or unaffordable for them to reach drinking water.

Who’s opposing the changes?

Central Oregon cities and key players from the state’s agricultural industry are pushing back.

Irrigated farming makes up the vast majority — about 85 percent — of the total water use in the state. The draft rules would likely hurt some growers, while benefiting others who already control existing, senior water rights, said Jeff Stone, a lobbyist and executive director of The Oregon Association of Nurseries.

Stone has been pressing for lawmakers to hold a hearing in November.

Both cities and farms have argued that the state’s proposed rules would effectively create a moratorium on new water rights, with painful economic fallout.

Why are Central Oregon cities opposed?

Leaders from Bend and Redmond have said the planned water restrictions are directly at odds with mandates from Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek and lawmakers, requiring cities to build more affordable housing.

Without reliable access to groundwater, cities can’t meet state-imposed construction goals, according to Redmond Mayor Ed Fitch. He said water regulators are already cracking down on his city’s attempts to drill new wells, and he urged the Water Resources Commission to carve out special rules for municipalities in the Deschutes Basin.

“If we were to go with the rules proposed, the city would basically be shut off from water, period,” Fitch said.

City of Bend Utility Director Mike Buettner said even just the perception of a moratorium on new groundwater rights in the Deschutes River Basin could be “devastating.”

“Not only does it eliminate our ability to plan for the future,” Buettner said, “it also creates a clear disincentive for businesses and industry to locate to Oregon, to Central Oregon specifically.”

State water officials have shied away from controversial water restrictions in the past. Will they actually make any changes?

That remains to be seen. The public could see the details of the draft rules later this year, and a final version could go before the Oregon Water Resources Commission sometime next spring.

The commission is a volunteer board appointed by the governor. Its members are poised to take considerable heat over these politically fraught decisions.

“I’m shaking inside as I speak,” Commissioner Kathy Kihara said at the recent meeting. “I’m one of these people in the Deschutes Basin. Yes, I rely on that groundwater, but I also know I can’t close the door behind me just because I moved there 20 years ago.”

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting on Oct. 2, 2023. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.