Future of Oregon Water Resources in Peril

The state has done little to prevent water scarcity as climate change and population growth take hold

by Emily Green | 5 Jul 2019 | StreetRoots

2015 was not a good year for water in Oregon.

It was the third year in a row of drought. As spring and summer slogged on, 25 counties across the state entered into a state of emergency. Access to water was shut off among farms with junior water rights, causing millions of dollars in economic losses. Meanwhile, in urban areas, water use increased above previous years as temperatures hovered nearly 7 degrees above average. In Portland, groundwater was used to supplement Bull Run Reservoir’s dropping levels. Across the state, wildfires, along with shrinking lakes and rivers and algae blooms, stifled outdoor recreation and tourism – the water level in several reservoirs receded beyond the reach of boat docks, making it impossible to launch watercraft, according to a reflective report on the drought that year from Water Resources & Policy Management at Oregon State University.

In the four years since, Oregon has done little to prepare itself for another summer such as the one it experienced in 2015 – and that’s a problem.

“Many of the climate experts in the state feel like 2015 was the kind of year we might see more regularly in the future under the climate change scenario – and that is a big deal because that means that water may not be available during the times of year that people have been used to it,” said Tom Byler, director of the Oregon Water Resources Department. His agency is responsible for issuing and regulating water rights and for protecting and restoring the sustainability of the state’s water resources.

Warming temperatures have resulted in less snowpack and earlier spring runoff as well as extreme rain events, which in turn result, first, in flooding, as was seen upriver on the Willamette this spring, followed by dwindling stream flows and water scarcity in summer months – when Oregon’s rural industries need water the most.

Byler warned that many communities of water users across the state are ill-prepared for the impacts of climate change when he addressed a crowd at the Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City last summer during the annual Coastal Caucus Economics Summit.

As the low summertime stream flows and disrupted weather patterns associated with climate change become more frequent, many small mom-and-pop water utilities “aren’t in a position to be able to have a Plan B or to address their water user needs,” he told a packed casino banquet hall.

“Water is one of those things that we’ve been so successful as a society, in getting water to people and meeting so many different needs; it’s seemingly abundant,” Byler said. “I think we’re entering a period where we won’t take it for granted as much because it’s going to be less available than it has been in the past, and the cycle of water that we’ve experienced in the past is not going to be something that we can rely on in the future.”

Street Roots sat down with Byler last month to see how his agency was working to address some of the water scarcity issues he spoke about at the summit nearly a year ago.

While Byler said it’s too soon to identify a new water cycle that might be replacing the old, what we do know is there’s greater uncertainty around what to expect, and there’s greater intensity around precipitation and temperature. And, he said, with winter flows getting higher, even when there is a normal amount of precipitation because it’s not retained in snowpack, “flood events in the winter are likely to be more frequent and in greater intensity.”

So what is Oregon doing to mitigate floods and increase its water storage capacities, given that high volumes of water are flowing, just not at the right time of year?

The answer is not much.

When it comes to fixing Oregon’s aging levees, dams and water delivery systems, Byler has said the demands “dwarf the resources that are available.”

On building storage capacity, Byler said it’s up to individual water user communities to come to his department for help with funding, technical assistance and permitting if they want to increase their stores. And while he thinks the problem is “on people’s minds,” it’s much more difficult to build new reservoirs today than it was during the early and mid-20th century, he said.

“We’ve got endangered-species issues that we didn’t have before. We’ve got financing issues; the federal government does not provide the same types of infrastructural resources that they did in the past. So it’s a daunting task for folks to try to move on storage, and it can be polarizing, politically, for communities to wrestle with those issues,” he said.

In other words, storage capacity isn’t increasing across the state as needed.

According to one estimate from the state, Oregon may need an additional 424 billion gallons of water annually by the year 2050 in order to meet irrigation and municipal needs.

But building reservoirs isn’t the only way to tackle the water capacity problem, and there are other things Oregon can and should do, said John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch. His nonprofit acts as a water resources watchdog in Oregon.

For one, DeVoe said, some Oregon communities aren’t using the water they have efficiently.

In the Deschutes Basin, for every three units of water stored, only one unit makes it to a crop due to water losses along the way, he explained, “so two-thirds of the water that’s stored never makes it to a crop. That’s really inefficient.” And inefficiency is a problem in many urban areas, too, where leaky pipes and old infrastructure contribute to wasted resources, he said.

Needed upgrades to Central Oregon’s canal system have been estimated to require $2 billion in funding. While the Oregon Legislature provided $10 million in funding this session for a piping project in the Deschutes Basin and an irrigation modernization program has helped the Tumalo and Three Sisters irrigation districts to convert their water-wasting canals to pipes, there are still dozens of districts that need upgrades.

“I also think it’s ironic that as we’re talking about storage, the Oregon Legislature is on the verge of approving three bills that would seriously weaken the protection we have for wetlands in our state,” DeVoe said. “Wetlands are natural water storage facilities, and yet we have these bills that are essentially going to allow farmers to dig out streams, put the fill into existing wetlands in the name of streamlining their ditch cleaning procedures (House Bill 2437).” He also pointed to a bill to study the consequences of potential changes that would weaken wetland protections and House Bill 2796, which would make it easier to build housing in wetlands. That bill made it out of committee with a do-pass recommendation but, since our interview with DeVoe, failed to pass.

House Bill 2437, however, was signed into law and increases the volume – by 60 times – of material that can be removed from intermittent streams and creek beds and temporarily placed in wetlands without a permit. This bill “could potentially have major negative impacts on Oregon’s streams and wetlands,” said Esther Lev, The Wetlands Conservancy director, in testimony against it.

“To the extent that we develop in the floodplain, we take meanders out of streams, we do this development in wetlands, we allow fill of wetlands; we’re losing water storage capacity out on the landscape. And you can look at a place like the Klamath Basin, where 80% of the wetlands have been drained and filled, and you can ask, ‘Well gee, is that part of the water shortage in the Klamath Basin?’ Well, sure it is,” he said.

Another challenge the Water Resources Department faces is an increasing demand for water that’s outpacing supply.

Across Oregon, water rights among basins are already fully appropriated or, in some areas, overappropriated, meaning there’s not enough water to fulfill all the water rights that have been granted during peak use.

In 2016, The Oregonian’s extensive report “Draining Oregon” revealed alarming mismanagement of water rights and resources across the state, with much of the blame falling on Byler’s department.

Later the same year, an Oregon Secretary of State’s Office audit found the department had only a vague understanding of how much water was flowing through the faucets of the users it regulates, it never replaced a division focused on maintaining water supplies for future needs after it was eliminated due to budgetary constraints, and the department’s restoration and conservation programs showed little participation.

But voluntary conservation programs are unpopular, the 2016 audit found. For example, its conserved water allocation program, in which users can donate portions of their water rights to instream use in exchange for being able to use water for purposes outside of their rights, had received just five applications per year since 2006.

“A number of staff expressed concern regarding the effectiveness of these programs and a lack of interest from water users,” the audit stated.

Additionally, agricultural water users are not required to have water management and conservation plans, and very few irrigation districts have done so voluntarily.

While the need for better instream protections and water conservation were identified in the department’s 2019-24 strategic plan, a clear path forward remains elusive.

The audit also found the department required reporting from just 20% of Oregon’s water users and that most agricultural users, who account for 85% of water use across the state, don’t report their consumption at all. It also found the agency was understaffed given its responsibilities.

Now, three years later, the percentage of users that report consumption has dropped to 16%.

Given the urgency of Oregon’s water resource situation as climate change worsens, we asked Byler why his agency doesn’t monitor more of the water that’s being used across the state so that it has a better understanding of water usage and availability.

“We do a lot of measurement; we certainly value data,” he said, pointing to the state’s 260 stream gauges and 1,400 monitoring wells.

DeVoe said that might sound like a lot of monitoring, but it’s insufficient, and the number of gauges has decreased in recent years.

Neither do these wells and gauges account for individual users’ consumption rates.

“That is something that we know is important, but I would temper that with the reality that we have 170 employees statewide,” Byler said. “We’re not in a position where we can monitor use on an ongoing basis very effectively.”

Within the department’s Field Service Division, which conducts infrastructure inspection, maintenance, enforcement and monitoring of water resources, there are 61 positions. These employees are responsible for 89,000 water rights, the inspection of more than 970 dams and the hundreds of gaging stations that require maintenance across the state, according to the department.

In Malheur County, just one watermaster regulates approximately 9,600 square miles. In Harney County, one watermaster and assistant serve nearly 12,000 square miles.

Byler said that rather than proactive monitoring and enforcement of water use, his agency is “much more reactive to requests that come our way, just by virtue of having fewer staff.”

But managing water rights and service to customers is just part of the department’s mission. When it comes to its duty “to restore and protect streamflows and watersheds in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of Oregon’s ecosystems, economy, and quality of life,” we asked what steps were being taken, especially when it comes to mitigating agriculture’s massive drain on waterways.

Byler said it’s “a tough balancing act.” Rather than increase regulation and enforcement on individual water rights holders, his agency has decided to focus its efforts on working with the “broader community” of water users in a particular area.

To accomplish this, his agency has piloted place-based planning projects in four basins that brings stakeholders together – a program that began in 2015 and was approved for additional funding this legislative session. He said it’s too early to say whether water rights holders are willing to voluntarily reduce their use.

“I don’t know what the answers are at this point,” he said, adding that conservation programs and improving water efficiency may be a way to solve the problem proactively and will require less punitive enforcement actions.

“There are some incentives for folks to improve their delivery systems that allow them to use less water in the application of their use, and they get some benefit by getting some grant dollars to be able to put those projects forward,” he said.

While the agency commissioned a report in 2015 that forecast demands for future water consumption needs for agriculture and utilities, it hasn’t done the same for future instream needs for healthy rivers and ecosystems.

“It’s a huge gap, and it’s a question of priorities,” DeVoe said. “It’s curious to me that the agency would produce such a report without even considering the second half of its mission – the instream side of its mission.”

DeVoe characterized this lack of data as a convenient ignorance, “because they can say, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s needed on the instream side of the equation.’”

And this ripples through all the department’s decision making, he said. As the place-based planning efforts move forward, that information isn’t available. As communities plan for the future of water resources for Lower John Day, one of the four pilot areas, for example, data about the level of water that steelhead runs need is absent from the discussion.

But when instream water rights are proposed to the department, in order to protect fish and ecosystem health, they’re typically challenged by agricultural interests.

“There were 17 new instream water rights filed in the Sandy and Hood River Basin. They challenged every one,” DeVoe said.

He said that while conservationists have posed legal challenges to the department – his organization has several ongoing lawsuits against the department – they pale in comparison to the litigation it receives from agriculture and cities.

The constant threat of litigation and inadequate funding from the state have resulted in sheepish behavior from a department that has a vital responsibility to begin taking bold action to secure Oregon’s water future.

This legislative session, the department’s asks were modest. House Bill 2856 to fund groundwater research, according to a policy option package submitted by the Water Resources Department, would allow the agency to complete 12 groundwater studies in 30 years instead of the 60 years it would take with existing resources.

Given the importance of understanding groundwater supplies and the urgency posed by climate change, we asked Byler why he wasn’t advocating for more resources to get the studies done more quickly.

“While it doesn’t shoot for the moon – like you’re suggesting might be a good thing – I think it’s a big ask for us as an agency, and it’s a big ask compared to what we’ve done in the past,” Byler said. “We’re competing with a lot of other needs around the state, so we do temper that.”

The bill passed out of committee but never came up for a vote on the floor.

In addition to continuing funding for the place-based planning pilot projects, Byler said his department also pushed for House Bill 2085, which passed and will update statutes relating to dam safety, allowing the Water Resources Department to enforce the safety of the 970 dams it inspects.

“I am optimistic about the level of awareness and understanding among the policymakers,” Byler told Street Roots before the legislative session had ended. “My hope is it will lead to some good actions that will help us and help communities around the state with their water needs.”

But lawmakers left Salem without making needed investments in Oregon’s water future. The Legislature funded a reduced version of a package recommended in the governor’s budget, which will allow for one additional groundwater study at a time. The package added $1 million to address increasing legal expenses from lawsuits against the department, added an internal auditor, and added two watermasters and four assistant watermasters to support the department’s field work. It did not fund four other proposals in her budget that would have allowed for a dam safety task force and analysis for dam modernization,

Additionally, a bill to create a task force to study water measurement and reporting, a bill to study groundwater in Harney County and a bill to authorize the Water Resources Department to require reporting of water use measurement all failed.

As of press time, the upcoming budget total for the state’s Water Resources Department was still being finalized. During the past biennium, it’s operated on $52 million per year.

Email Senior Staff Reporter Emily Green at emily@streetroots.org. Follow her on Twitter @greenwrites.