Editorial: Short on aquifer information

Editorial: Short on aquifer information
By the Editorial Board
Baker City Herald

September 21, 2016

When you irrigate fields and pastures from a reservoir or a stream, it’s easy to tell when you’re running short on water.

You just have to look.

But the situation is nothing like as simple when it comes to some of Oregon’s larger sources of water for irrigation and for drinking.

Because these reservoirs are underground.

Thousands of farmers statewide, including many in Baker County, depend on water from aquifers to nourish their crops.

Trouble is, as The Oregonian showed in a well-researched series of stories recently, we know little about how much water is in these hidden reservoirs.

The sketchy data that do exist suggest that in some places — again, including Baker County — irrigators are pumping more water from aquifers than is being replenished by rain and snow.

This unacceptable state of affairs requires action by the Oregon Legislature.

The Oregonian reported that based on the current rate of groundwater studies, the state won’t finish its work until 2096. The excuse, as is typical with the government, is that there’s not enough money to accelerate the work. The implication is that someone — farmers, cities, someone — isn’t paying enough in taxes or fees.

We disagree.

We blame lawmakers for failing to write budgets that recognize how vital water is to agriculture, and moreover how integral agriculture is to Oregon’s economy. Farm and ranch products grown here brought in $5.4 billion last year.

We’re not opposed to the state imposing a modest fee on farmers and ranchers who tap aquifers, to help raise money for studies that will show how rapidly we’re depleting our aquifers.

But although agriculture is the thirstiest Oregon industry, accounting for about 80 percent of aquifer use, it’s also an industry that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs. It would be unfair to put the entire financial burden of these studies on the water users themselves.

Ultimately the state of Oregon’s aquifers should be a high priority for the Legislature.

As it stands, it’s hardly a priority at all.