Dropping rural Oregon groundwater levels causing concerns

Dropping rural Oregon groundwater levels causing concerns

Bend Bulletin (AP)
March 14, 2007

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A homebuilder in rural Oregon can still sink a well and usually pump up to 15,000 gallons of water a day.

But well levels are dropping, and in Salem the situation is getting another look as agriculture, fishery and environmental advocates ask lawmakers for a better idea how much water is being used and whether steps are needed to protect rivers, farms and rural residents.

“Practically all of Oregon’s stream water is appropriated, so everybody is looking to groundwater for growth,” said state Rep. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, the chairwoman of the House Energy and Environment Committee. “But we don’t even have the information to know what the cumulative impacts are.”

It’s a major worry in the fast-growing Deschutes Basin. Studies show the region’s aquifers are connected to heavily tapped rivers.

Cities, irrigation districts and other large users are required to take steps to replace the water they pump out. That includes buying water from other irrigators through a “banking” system.

But people who drill new domestic wells – there were 461 of them in Deschutes County from 2004 to 2006 – can pump without any remedy.

Hearings began Monday about Oregon groundwater as a prelude to talks about whether Oregon should re-examine its policy toward exempt private wells statewide.

Dingfelder has sponsored a bill that would have the state review all requests for domestic well permits.

The Oregon Water Resources Department estimates that there are 230,000 exempt wells in Oregon, growing by 3,000 a year.

New wells likely will increase faster as more rural landscape is developed under the Measure 37 property rights law, which opened the door to subdivisions on farm land.

Outside Salem, a group of landowners is challenging a development proposed under Measure 37 because of water-related concerns.

“Farmers are concerned about exempt wells and that has been increased by Measure 37,” said Katie Fast, a lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Several farmers have to go deeper for the water they need, she said.

In addition, wells are going in where the state is restricting groundwater access for larger users, including Christmas Valley in northern Lake County and the Umatilla Basin.

John DeVoe, director of WaterWatch of Oregon, a conservation group, said the state needs to allow new wells sparingly until it knows more about water levels.

“By closing this loophole, Oregon will be better able to manage groundwater use and its effects on other water rights holders, rivers and fish,” he said.

State Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, said population growth and new crops for biofuels will require more water, especially in northeast Oregon.

DeVoe said conservation measures such as the piping of Central Oregon irrigation canals can stretch water supplies.

Seattle uses less water today than in did in the 1960s, he told the committee.

Not everybody favors permits for all new wells.

The real estate and ranching industries say exempt wells account for less than 7 percent of groundwater.

The state already can declare areas groundwater-scarce and turn off wells, said Harlan Levy, the lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Realtors.

Dingfelder on Monday convened a panel this week that includes lobbyists on both sides, facilitated by state Rep. Chuck Burley, R-Bend, the vice chairman of the Energy and Environment Committee.

He said he isn’t sure exempt wells pose a major problem. “From what I’ve seen, the amount of water is pretty small,” he said.