Domestic wells affected by irrigators
By Samantha Tipler
Klamath Falls Herald & News
July 23, 2013
Dennis Oden lives outside Merrill in the middle of green agricultural fields. Oden is not a farmer. He gets water for his home with a domestic well.
With the drought this year, and with some Klamath Project farmers choosing to pump water from the ground rather than use water from Upper Klamath Lake, Oden is worried about the overall toll it will take on the aquifer he dips into for his personal water.
In 2004, Oden had to deepen the intake point of his well. In 2010, he had to drill the entire well deeper.
Over the last 10 years, he has watched the steady decline of the water level in his well with caution.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be after the next reading with what they’ve been pulling out per minute,” he said. “What they use in six minutes is what I use in a year.”
Oden said he understands the farmers need water, especially in a drought year like this one.
His worry is oversight. He wonders if the Klamath Water and Power Agency and the Oregon Water Resources Department have a plan for how the aquifer is being used.
“It always seems that they’re reactive,” Oden said. “They wait for things to explode or implode before they take any necessary steps to correct it. They wait for catastrophic incidences. They’re reactive instead of proactive.”
The well watchers
Hollie Cannon, executive director of KWAPA, said his board has not adopted a plan, but his agency and the OWRD are both monitoring how much water is pumped and what it is doing to the aquifer. The state department uses monitoring wells to measure the groundwater levels each month and KWAPA tracks monthly readings of how much water is pumped, Cannon said.
“We have a very good idea of what’s going on,” said Kyle Gorman, south central regional manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department. His office is in Bend but the Klamath Basin is a part of his district, which Gorman said he knows well.
Many farmers who are pumping water are taking advantage of KWAPA’s Water Users Mitigation Program, known as WUMP. KWAPA pays farmers who choose to pump irrigation water rather than use surface water, like flows from Upper Klamath Lake. The 2013 program covered the full cost plus $10 per acre foot pumped from the well.
As of Aug. 1, Cannon estimated 50,000 acre feet will be pumped by those in the program.
That amount is likely less than was pumped in 2010, he said. That year there were about 130 farmers participating. This year there are 105 wells participating.
Gorman estimated the Klamath Basin aquifer has dropped a total of 20 feet overall.
Big pumping events, like in 2010, drop the level in the short run, but the aquifer will bounce back in later years. On a graph it makes a stair-step decline over time.
A graph of Oden’s well shows an overall drop of about 15 feet from 2003 to the beginning of 2013. This year the level took a nosedive of another 10 feet.
Cannon said in the short-term wells can pull the water level down in a cone shape, known as a cone of depression. Gorman said there is a cone of depression around all wells.
“It’s kind of like sucking at the top of a Slurpee with a straw,” Cannon said.
When you take a big sip, a cone forms around the straw. But the lowest point of the cone isn’t the overall level of the drink.
“If you shake up the Slurpee it evens itself out,” Cannon said. That’s what happens to the aquifer over time.
In 2010 Oden’s well dropped 10 feet, but recovered six of those feet by 2012.
“All I’ve asked for or looked to them for was some oversight and management to control the depletion in a reasonable way that will help sustain, not just my ability to use the groundwater, but those in the surrounding area,” Oden said. “There has absolutely got to be a better way of managing and oversight.”
When asked if an overall aquifer drop of 20 feet in the Klamath Basin was a big deal, Gorman said it depends on the context.
In the Umatilla Basin in northeast Oregon, the water level has dropped 400 feet, requiring the state to enforce water law on wells the same way it is enforcing adjudication on river water in the Klamath Basin. Taken in that context, 20 feet isn’t such a huge drop.
But every basin is unique.
“Is 20 feet significant? From an overall water budget standpoint, I guess it just depends on a few factors and how you want to look at things,” Gorman said. “Twenty feet over a long period of time, no. Twenty feet a year, that’s significant.”
The U.S. Geological Survey recently completed a 10-year study of the groundwater in the Klamath Basin, Cannon said. That study told KWAPA about areas of concern, places where water shouldn’t be pumped.
“We have areas we stay away from, areas we should not contract in because of the possible risk to the aquifer,” Cannon said.
KWAPA and the OWRD are adding to that study with current observations of wells and the aquifer this year.
“This year is a stress test on the aquifer,” Cannon said. “We anticipate it will provide insight into the capabilities of the aquifer and therefore what the limits of pumping the aquifer are.”
The state department, likewise, is keeping track of the situation, Gorman said.
“We have more monitoring wells in this area than most other areas of the state,” he said. “We have a really good handle on both what’s occurring real time and a water use standpoint. With all the meters on the wells, we have a good understanding and feel for how much water is pumped. I’m confident in our abilities to respond and take a look and understand what’s going on.”
In 2010 when Oden drilled his well deeper, he was assisted by a KWAPA program that paid for 75 percent of the cost, up to $10,000. Oden said his well didn’t reach that $10,000 mark. He estimated it was about $4,000.
When Oden walks onto his front porch, he can hear a steady rumbling. It’s the sound of a nearby irrigation pump pulling 5,000 gallons a minute from the ground. It reminds him of the lack of a plan for the future.
“If I were to drill down 500 feet, they would suck it down to 465,” he said. “I can go as far and as deep, as long as I want it, and they would take it right to the limit. And that’s what’s frustrating. I can’t afford to keep drilling and drilling and drilling to keep up with the pace that they’re wanting to pull the water out of the source.”